There was an entire day listening to screaming across the phone, eventually yelling myself. The raw hard facts once more. I am a powerless tourist here, protected by no one. And my daughter is the same. The threats and vicious ultimatums had gotten especially bizarre and just plain crazy in the last few days. With the slightest capricious inspiration her mother can draw blood from both of us, changing and rearranging visitation, sleeping arrangements, money arrangements and really seeing each other at all. Each day I leave my daughter at school or at her mother’s house could be the last time I ever see her.
Thursday night left me feeling particularly helpless. I worked late, trying to find a way to combine exhaustion and hunger that might lead directly to sleep. But 11PM found me wide awake. No appetite with the sun still hanging in the sky. Drinking sweet, cheap wine, the empty sounds of the city drifted up through the open windows. Her toys scattered across the floor, drawings half-done. Some proof that she had really been here yesterday. A pale white light etched the room in perfect detail. I cried for some time, something I have not done in more than a year. Staring at the ceiling, the blankets twirled around me, tears rolled into my ears I almost did not hear the phone – N calling to check on me.
She arrived a few minutes later, curling next to me. We lay like this for some time.
“I failed.” I whispered to her. “I can’t protect my daughter.”
N ran a hand across my mouth.
“No, it’s true. She suffers. She cries herself to sleep when she is not here.” I said. “She is not fed, washed, or cared for and I can’t do anything to stop it.”
Later, N smoked a cigarette in the kitchen. It was almost 3.
“I need a miracle.” I said in the darkness.
The next morning we woke, sipping coffee in silence. I drank some church water from a tiny glass, and propped a new fatherly-looking hat on my head. N kissed me once on the cheek.
On the way to a meeting that afternoon I ate a Stardog from a street vendor close to my office. I had not eaten one in months, but they remembered E and asked where she was. I tried to explain, and whatever I did succeed in expressing in Russian made their faces drop.
Passing Gorky Park and the Lenin Statue on Oktoberskaya I wondered how E was feeling now, wondering who would take her from school today. Wondering if she would ever see me again.
Back in the office, a phone call came from her mother, mumbling under her breath. Some kind of madness, and the fact that I would take E from school today.
I ran through the streets, holding the hat to my head. E launching into my arms in the schoolyard. The old woman with gold teeth that sells us nectarines and apricots – today a plastic cup of wild strawberries. There is a giant hole in E’s Hello Kitty tights, and she is jumping in water puddles. The soft wet earth smells like a dog.
We arrive at the playground, suddenly starving and eating the fruit. The wild strawberries are exotic, fragile. In Russian zemlyanika, “little things from the earth”. I used to believe it meant “tiny earth” but now I learned from N you must crawl in the dirt to find them, you must get very close to the earth to find them.
The woman who told me they are “tiny earths” is long gone. A clever act that ended many, many years ago.