On Friday E played hooky and went to work with me, even to a long meeting where she drew tall girls in my notebook. She sat in complete silence, picking out felt tip pens from a bag and occasionally rolling her eyes over to me as I waved my hands around and took notes. Later, we ate fresh Chebureki and went to a playground.
The night drew upon us, the sun still tall in the sky. I carried her home in my arms and made pasta for dinner.
Sergey called me with news. An actor we had worked with had died suddenly, and the tiny little film experiment we had made together was Evgeny's last performance. Something about a blood clot. I could not really listen to the details. Those handful of of hours we spent shooting coincided with my first nights in the apartment when I moved out. I had one plate, one fork, a t-shirt for a towel. We shot that half-baked story at 2 AM one curious night in December. Evgeny was running a fever, but came anyway. He told me in his rushed, slurry Russian he had never played an angel before. We drank vodka together. He understood my directions immediately. He got involved in the vampire girl's costume options, urging for more cleavage, always more cleavage. He smelled of salt and pickles, his musty coat full of dust. When I taped the cardboard wings on him, he laughed and laughed.
I uploaded the film for Sergey, imagining how bizarre it would be to show this at his funeral, how beyond ironic it was. I thought about that night and how I felt some odd kind of return - - to life, to expressing myself no matter how mundane or foolish. I saw pretty girls and spoke to them, wondering if they understood me at all. I sat in traffic with Sergey, hashing through the details of our business. The stagnant life had gone uncorked. I felt lonely, naked, raw. I woke up looking at the hard sky outside new windows, wrapped in my jacket for a blanket.
On Saturday, I cleaned the house. I roasted duck legs and fennel for a ragu. I really wanted to cook for N tonight. I wanted to sit in the late sun and roll out pasta, her standing on one foot stirring the sauce. I wanted to smell basil on our fingers.
I got another message. Howard, my college writing teacher had died. I spent four years in his classes, growing under his guidance - - his laser precise comments, his encouragement, his brutal honesty. One of my sophomore exercises eventually became my first novel. When it got published, fly-by-night, choatic and marginally - I still called him, thanked him. Howard made one short laugh and told me he was not surprised.
I have a scrap of paper he sent me that summer after Sophomore year. He scribbled - "You came under a lot of fire, and you stuck to your guns. I don't always agree with you, but I think you have a lot of courage. Keep going."
When I came back, he told me I should develop this little nugget of a story "to gnaw on its bones" as he always taught - - this difficult, almost impossible work. An intimate story about a little girl, as she eventually becomes a young woman - -molested, raped, a runaway, a survivor. How could a 19 year old boy write this successfully, honestly, truthfully? It took me 13 years, and I threw most of it out a number of times, starting over from scratch. Howard forced me to go to incest survivor meetings, events, art shows. He told me it was my responsibility to get things right.
And now he's gone. I know he loved his wife very much. I know he loved the Mets, and a good dirty joke.
Today I took E to school. The Moscow sun spread our shadows long in front of us. We looked like we were on stilts. E gripped my hand, sweaty and strong. We walked in silence.
"Pop?" E said.
"Yes." I said after a moment.
"I know how to tell if a woman in pregnant." E said. "They have a big belly and a tiny popa*."
I laughed and laughed.
* popa - tushy, bottom, derriere