21 April 2014

the sky is falling (frogs, rabbits and pigs)



I am about to turn the corner where that jewelry store is, with the plaque of Eduard Tisse on the wall outside. I wonder if anyone knows he was the cameraman on Battleship Potemkin without reading it. There is a sudden smack against the sidewalk a few feet in front of me. I hunch over, hands over the back of my head. There is a pickle jar shattered on the asphalt, surrounding by dirty water and cigarette butts. I look up quickly, seeing no one. A man is passing me. I tell him to be careful, pointing at the glass and then the collection of balconies above us. He shrugs his shoulders, shoving past me.

I think to turn back, to thread around the grass and fence to avoid another falling jar but then convince myself it is not going to happen again. I tell myself that there is a reason I was a half-second slow on my walk to take E from school today and that is why it did not hit me. I tell myself this could never fall on her, if I had taken her fifteen minutes early. She would not be asking me for an ice cream on the way home and have glass shards sticking out of her little skull. That could not happen I tell myself out of sheer force of will.

Raking my body against the warm bricks I stand at the corner far from the building. No one is looking out, guilty from a window above me. There was no child that knocked it off by mistake. It is impossible to know why this happened, and who left it there.

I promise myself to walk differently on the way home as some sort of pointless precaution, that this will somehow keep us safe.




When I meet E in the lobby, she sees I am shaken. I decide to tell her, not to candy coat anything. She listens, as I pull her backpack onto my shoulders. Her mouth twists around as she thinks.
"It is kind of like lightning." She explains. "It could not happen in the same place again."
I hug her once.
I want to explain to her that lightning is caused by nature, and that every smoker here has a jar of some kind on a windowsill. I want to explain that in Russia they would say it is my fault for walking under the window, or that God says I deserve to be hit by something falling from the sky before they say the person who left the jar on the windowsill did anything wrong.

In seven years here, I have never gotten an apology. No one has ever done anything wrong here. Bad things simply happen, all by themselves.



We pack toothbrushes and a change of clothes into a bag. E wants to make her own, adding a light scarf, and a little stuffed animal. N thinks we should bring E's new scooter. I figure out how to fold it up, cramming everything in the trunk of the car.

Traffic is thick and we keep the windows closed but the air still stinks of diesel and mud. E asks me how far it is.

An hour later, we have barely made our way to the third ring. The cosmonaut museum is here, with its strange curved needle that shoots into the sky and the two happy workers holding the hammer and the sickle. I stare up at them, the sun smacking off of the metal. They look smaller than I remember them.

And then the road opens up, and we are weaving through the countryside. The earth is covered in dead grass. There are piles of garbage burning in driveways, with no one watching them. There are old tires by the side of the road, forgotten bags of garbage, scraps of aluminum, slabs of concrete upended like seesaws. The wind is running along my arms, E is chewing gum, cracking jokes in the back seat I can only hear half of. N is scared we will get lost. I keep the map on my lap, the navigator on my knee for her to glance at, but I know we will find our way.




The sun is started to go down when we arrive. There are throngs of chirping birds. There is no traffic, no sound of gunning engines, no sound of trains or slamming doors. Just us, and the gravel of the parking lot crunching under our feet. I cannot think about the jar that fell now, it seems like a different life, a different world than this one. It must have happened years ago.

Our friends greet us, their daughter taking E's hand and running with her to see the animal farm where peacocks and chickens stalk behind a window. They run back, asking for their scooters and I unfold E's. She kicks into the distance and then swerves back to me.
"I think there are frogs here." She tells me, in one breath. "And maybe rabbits and a pig."





14 April 2014

rainy days and mondays (run and find the one who loves me)

The streets are wet. E's red raincoat is short at the wrists. There are stray dogs slogging through the puddles, their fur a grey mess the same color as the sky. She looks up at me, that defeated Monday morning look on her face and I shake my head, telling her to let it go. 

I know she loves the rain.

The lights are out in her school. The guards are sitting in the dark lobby hunched over computer screens. I kiss the top of her head once. The room smells of wet paint and fumes.



On the way home I see a tiny house made of paper hanging from some colored yarn. It is sagging, falling apart from the rain. I wonder if it is for birds, or if some children just left it here and then someone saved it.

I see the faces, the stone expressions sucking on cigarettes, the occasional hard stare like I am a Martian walking among them. The thought comes to me that each one of these people has a home, a kitchen table, a bed, some shoes in a closet, that every single one of these people has hats and jackets and umbrellas, a window to stare out of late at night, a cherished cup, some eggs in the fridge. I think of every single person I pass having dirty clothing to wash, a decision about what to have for breakfast, some coins lost in a couch, bills to pay, a picture that hangs on a wall they have stopped looking at.

A woman sits on a folding chair next to a crosswalk. She is wrapped in a blue plastic bag, her head bowed low over a harmonica. She plays it the way children do - breathing in and out through it, just the same two or three notes. There is no melody, no phrasing, no expression, no pauses. It is more noise than music.

I see her.



07 April 2014

mannequins (you can't go back)

E stands next to me at my desk, watching me working. She coughs once, a leftover of the light cold she is getting over. She rests a hand on my arm.
"Pop." She says, breaking the silence of the room.
I turn to her.
"I think I am ready to learn to draw right." She says. "Like you and grandpa do."
I have explained things to her many times, how she will never draw her characters the same once I teach her how to draw what she sees, not the ideas of hands and eyes, the ideas of striped stockings and impossibly pointed shoes.
"Are you sure?" I ask.
She nods once.
I find a white box, and place it in the light that comes through the big window, turning it so the sides and top are in different degrees of shadow.

E is sitting with her hands on her knees, a pile of cheap white paper in front of her. My good pencils are ready. I show her how to measure the box, holding the pencil out in front of her, showing how the box is so wide, and two times that and a little more than that tall. She starts to draw lines and I stop her, starting a drawing on my page of the back cabinets behind the box, leading up to the box's edge. She hovers over my page, then goes back to hers. I explain we are drawing the shapes of the shadows now, that we are not drawing a box or the idea of a box - we are drawing a flat shape that has some angles, and then another flat shape that is a little bit darker when we get to the top.
She gets it, and the late morning is flipping past us. 

Her drawing is wobbly and out of proportion but the ideas are there. I point out what she has done well, what she might try to work on. My big eraser comes out of the bag and she digs into her drawing. I finish mine, trying to give her an idea of certain things to work towards. 
We start a second time, this time blackening the center of the page with pencil and drawing the box with the tip of a kneaded eraser. 
"We draw the light." I keep telling her.
She frowns at one point. 
"Yours is really good." She says, stopping.
"Well I have been doing this for a long, long time." I tell her. "For half an hour, you are doing awesome."
She drops the eraser to the table. Her fingers flip at the corners of the page. 
E is starting to cry.
The phone rings. Her mother will take her in a little while. 
I pull her to my side, pointing out what she got right in her first drawing. The tears are still rolling down her chin. Her nose is flooded with snot.
"Did you expect to be perfect without any practice?" I ask, making a joke.
She laughs, snot bubbles popping from her nose.
We stop.
She slumps against my shoulder for a while.
We pack her laptop, her phone charger, a stray doll with a giant blue afro that she will bring.

The call eventually comes and I take her downstairs for that walk I never get used to, when I have to strap the seat belt onto her and say goodbye even if it is just for an afternoon, or one whole night. The moment of closing the door and turning away is impossible to be prepared for. I wander back upstairs, looking at the things we were just playing with like mannequins in a store window staring back at me.





31 March 2014

ink


The pen is dry. I unscrew it, placing the nib on an empty sheet of paper. The container is not far from me, next to a photograph leaning against the wall. I pull the piston out, twirling it down as it blows bubbles inside the little bottle then suck the bright blue ink inside as I twirl it back up. Back in the nib, ink stains my fingertips. I screw the body on last, making sure not to get any on it. N bought me this pen in Florence, on the last night we were there. I tried to explain to the little old man in the store that I would write a new book with it. In truth, I am still finishing the old one.

It is Sunday morning and I am somehow alone in the house. It has been a month or two since I brought the little white desk in from the balcony. Eggs and bacon already inside me, I reserved the second coffee until now, placing it on the corner. The last ten pages sit in the middle of the space, pen to the right. Maybe I am obsessive. Maybe I just have my rituals.

The phone rings. It is N checking in on me, just saying hello, just saying she wants to hear my voice.
"What are you doing?" She asks.
"Writing." I answer, after a moment.
"Woho." She says, happy and maybe a little surprised. "Call me later."

The pages are there, clean, poised.

The pen slides open, getting a little more ink on my fingers. I scratch the nib in the corner of the page to be sure it will write when I need it to.

I dig into the pages, fixing the awkward parts, noting where there needs to be an extra space between paragraphs or when there is too much space between them. I circle words, suddenly seeing some sentences are structured backwards. This is the work, to find a way to make it all look effortless and then leave that one tiny little piece that pokes out, the tiny rock in the shoe, the clipped hair stuck under the t-shirt that calls attention to itself. This is the part I delete and then put back in. This is the imperfection I keep on purpose. Otherwise it becomes too smooth, too clean. Maybe I listen to too much Thelonius Monk.

The machine has started turning again. I have done the hard work of rethreading the story, much like a sewing machine that needs a new bobbin, and a fresh roll. Maybe there are some confusing moments trying to remember which way the thread wraps around the hooks. The story is deeply disturbing. I know it all too well, this last story kicking around inside me for more than fifteen years now. Realizing it, putting the apples on the trees, the tall thin divorced man burning things in the backyard every chance he can get, the little boy crunching on dry macaroni, the woman who stinks like a horse digging into the dirt as she plants potatoes. There are moments that make the hair on my arms go up. Naked people in the rain, the child vomiting onto the dinner table, mysterious knocks on the door in the early morning.

I get up to get a glass of water and see my reflection in the hallway mirror. I do not recognize myself.






24 March 2014

balance (ring, ring)


We are baking tollhouse cookies for her class, late on a Thursday night. I am tired. I even forgot to buy the chocolate to snap into messy squares and then chop down to bits. N brings them, after I call her on her way home. The butter turns into the salt and egg, sugar and flour, a splash of vanilla I remember this time. I spread it thin across the bottom of a pan. This year they will be cut into squares.

E writes the names of her classmates on a fresh piece of paper, counting out loud on her fingers, her mouth twisting around as she makes sure.
"We need twenty four, plus more for Larissa and Jhanna." She announces at one point.
"You can't give them just one." I tell her. "At least two."
Her eyes grow big.
She smiles.
The kitchen smells warm and sweet.
The first batch comes out and I cut into them, measuring out thirty messy rectangles and sliding them onto a tray. N tastes one.
"Too salty." She tells me.
"They are supposed to be salty." I answer. "The balance of the salt is the key, it makes them taste sweeter."
She shakes her head and rolls her eyes.
E tastes a corner of one.
"They are kind of salty, Pop." She says.
I taste a crumb. They are a bit too salty.
"Fucking Russian salt." I say, spreading the second batch across the pan.
"Don't worry, they will eat them." E tells me. "I promise."
N makes tea for both of us.
I rest my hand on her knee after the second batch is in the oven. We trade a few expressions an economy of words cannot describe.
"They are fine." She tells me, quietly.
I stare into the red cup.

E calls from her bed, she is ready to be tucked in.



We spend Saturday cleaning the house and cooking. E sets the children's table, the wind snapping through the windows knocking over her towers of paper cups more than once. And then all at once the doorbell is buzzing and guests arrive, a pile of coats growing on the bed, biscuits and fried chicken pumping out of the kitchen, mouths puckering from the homemade bread and butter pickles. And then doors slamming, children howling and running from room to room, the adults laughing in the kitchen as I make six or seven pizzas before the dough runs out.

The stove off, the tiny room cools and everyone is playing the ukeleles. I cannot find the tall thin candles I bought the other day, but N has short ones already prepared. This year, a pineapple upside-down cake is what E wanted. It was my favorite when I was her age, sweet and soggy and lemony, barely sour and best eaten cold the next day.

I shove the candles into the soft, wet center and hope they do not fall over before I make it to the living room.


The scooter is her favorite gift. It has a bell, and she rings it every time she passes it in the house. We go downstairs after Sunday breakfast. The helmet wobbles on her head. I give her some pointers, explain what a center of gravity is. She stares up at me, suddenly seeing the scooter as an object to admire, not something to conquer. I show her where to put her feet, explaining that her purple sneakers were designed just for scooters and skateboards, that she can just let them do all of the work. 

Twenty minutes later, she can ride cautiously. She rings the bell constantly, kicking twice, going too fast and then jumping off. She is laughing, smiling, her hands waving around like a little bird. 
"I am going to go down that way, all by myself ok?" She asks me.
I nod yes.
"And if I am ok, I will ring two times." She adds.
"But I can see if you are ok." I tell her.
"Mmm - just let me tell you I am ok." She presses.
I nod.
She rolls away and I am struck with that melodramatic, tv show pang. She can roll by herself. She is drifting away from me and this is how it needs to be. The sun is banging into my eyes, and I squint at her making her way down the driveway. The hair goes up on my arms. 
She stops and rings two times, gives me a thumbs up.
And then she starts to come back.




17 March 2014

Danny Boy - an Irish Song

She picks it, out of thin air. A laugh jumps out of my mouth and I am looking for chord charts. It is in a number of keys. The little guitar is in my lap, my elbows twisting around. She is next to me, leaning against my shoulder.
"There is a second verse." She says.
We try it in C but it is too high.
I go for the Johnny Cash version next.
It fits.
Then, mid-word she grows quiet. I point at the place, thinking she just got lost.
She is crying, her face folding in on herself the way it does.
I hold her, we talk quietly. She whispers to me, says the song is too sad. I make jokes, change the words to "Oh Beasty Boy" then put it all in Brooklyn where lots of words change to "mustard" and "bridge".
We let it go.

The next day she says she can do it, over a bowl of cereal.







10 March 2014

Fear and the Ukraine

Walking back from E's school I pass the hotel Ukraine. One of seven sister buildings built by German POWs during World War II, they are classic Soviet structures - menacing, monolithic, each with a red star perched at the top. A thin young man approaches me. I am asked for directions on this stretch of sidewalk almost every day. The White House is just across a bridge to the left, the closest metro hidden behind a park to the right, a gas station lurks on the other side of the hotel. People stop me, their Russian about as bad as mine most of the time, travelers from far off regions looking for a place to have a coffee, or use a bathroom.

I stop, trying to understand what he asks for. Typically I do not stop if it is more than one person. Sometimes, there is safety in less numbers. Then I understand he has something in his small black bag he wants to sell to me. My head is shaking. My hand waves him off in disgust. It has to be something stolen he is trying to unload.
I walk away quickly and he is skipping across the pavement, desperate words tumbling out of him. A few meters later, another man is holding up a cracked tablet PC towards me, trying to sell it too.
I duck into the underpass and put them both behind me.



On the next day, I leave E at school kissing her once on the top of her head through her hat. She disappears behind the doors and I am walking back the same way. The hotel Ukraine is lit up orange and yellow against the bright blue edges of the early morning sky. 

Two young men pass me, hands shoved into pockets. One turns back to look in a single motion. It is the young man from yesterday. His short black hair shines wet under the street light that is still on. The one next to him is shorter. They are in that sort of uniform - cheap jeans with faded patterns, tight leather jackets, low sneakers. The short one looks back over his shoulder, quickly. I look behind me, wondering if some militia are after them. People with black hair get profiled quite easily here, hassled for documents and passports at any given moment, ducked into police cars if they do not have them with them. 
No, no one behind me but the old woman with a face like a potato with her hands out, waiting for loose change in the damp underpass. 

Up the stairs, they both look back and the hair on my neck begins to prickle. They are too nervous.
I chew the inside of my cheeks, trying not to see two men with black hair and assume they are terrorists. I know this is paranoia, from living here too long. Yes, there are bombs that go off in the metro, in the airport, at a quiet random moment just like this. I try to tell myself I am mistaken.
A breeze whips past me.
It is a third young man, who trots up to the other two in front of me. They exchange a few words, hands shoved in pockets, elbows poking out into the wet air.
The third one looks back at me, but not in the eyes.
I wonder what their target could be, and imagine it must be the hotel Ukraine. The White House is across the river, they would have gone a different direction if that was it. 
I pinch myself, stopping my imagination. 
They walk fast, turning down Kutozovsky towards the Porsche dealership I have never seen anyone enter or exit.  

This must be that moment, I tell myself. 
Remember it. This silence, this calm. 

But nothing happens, or nothing is reported. 
Just three nervous young men, an old woman asking for money and me, pressing out fear, pressing out the past, pressing out of the morning into the day.