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Breathing the right air

Nothing brings more comfort than a bag of good things to cook, swinging under your arm as you make your way home. Somehow it blots out the rest of the world. In these moments, the entire universe consists of a late afternoon sun, a stray dog and a clump of flowers growing strange and wild in a yard. A hit of basil jumps from my elbows with each swing of the bag, a gift from one of the ladies I buy from the most. I visit markets without intention, just eyes open ready to discover fresh peas, or the first corn. Knowing that these products will disappear as quickly as they present themselves creates a certain form of excitement. Each season offers up this rhythm and without it I might become completely lost.

I think of when we were in Tuscany a month ago, feeling like such a tourist until I wandered out along the highway and found the local vegetable stand. I shoved squash blossoms and tiny tomatoes into a bag, rushing back to our room like I had robbed a bank. I made pasta with them th…

bittersweet chocolate frosting

E is making a low sad noise, something like a puppy when it is left behind. Her face turned into the corner of the wall, she stands in her underwear. Elbows slack and awkward against her sides, the cat is sniffing her ankles. She does not want to go outside, even if it is my birthday, even if we might take a cruise on the river, or eat shashlik in a garden, or go hear music. She just wants to be at home, surrounded by familiar things. I am dressed, showered, shaved, shoes on my feet.

And I slip them off.

I sit with her in the corner, all bones and tears in my arms. She curls up in my lap, her face against my t-shirt. She has drawn me a birthday card with a big yellow man and some heart balloons. She has had too much this week, having spent four days at her mothers where she was fed one meal of porridge a day, where she sat in the dark playing by herself, where she was yelled at for no reason, maybe watching reruns on the old tv if she kept the sound very low, counting the days until she would be back with me.

We play with dolls, acting out complex stories about shopping and running a restaurant. We twist the curtains into braids, imagining they are the hair from a giant. We take a nap under the fan, as the sun walks across the walls.


The smoke did fade a few days ago, although the smell remains, spiking the night air and I jump from bed ready to close the windows. It rained one night for almost an hour.


A few days earlier, I had spent a perfect evening with friends, eating dinner in a rooftop garden long after dark. High above the city on Lenin's Hill we sipped cold beers, brushed bees from our salads and slumped into our chairs. It was the first time I had relaxed in weeks. I stared off at the city below us, the car headlights like a string of white pearls being dragged across the earth. The slow curve of the river bringing everyone towards home. I smelled fresh tarragon, and laundry detergent. I smelled vanilla ice cream. The smoke was something we were forgetting. A slow walk after dinner past the students sucking down beers, past the haphazard rows of motorcyles, the bikers in Italian leather outfits, the Harley guys with their aging girlfriends squeezed into hotpants, past a tiny church I had visited almost 10 years ago on my first trip to Moscow. And then home, not turning on the lights, just calling N and drifting to sleep.

That was my birthday party I thought as I held E, while her tears soaked into my clean white shirt. Of course I wanted to go outside with her, maybe throw coins at Kilometer Zero like we did on my birthday last year. 600 rubles (about $12) to my name on that day, and we had such a beautiful time eating shashlik at a tiny place, dodging raindrops, wandering the city. I wanted to repeat this experience with actual money in my pockets. But no, it would not be.


I got E as far as the market, where I bought baby lamb chops and spinach, parsnips and a great box of chanterelles. E suddenly wanted apricots and plums, raspberries and sour cherries. We made our way home and I cooked a magnificent dinner. E sat in the kitchen, drawing countless pictures of a small family shopping, playing together, of women in a beauty parlor. My birthday cake was not strawberry as we had planned but spiced blueberry with bittersweet chocolate frosting. E decorated it with sprinkles, and sang happy birthday to me. It was not the the day I had planned or expected. But we were together to celebrate, and people were calling with beautiful wishes. N would be coming home in a day.





I sat and drank a glass of red Abkhazzian wine, fresh and sour on my lips. We had come a hell of a long way since my last birthday. Sometimes I take certain freedoms for granted, caught up in the details of some vague and luminous future I have imagined.

E was already fast asleep.

Comments

Phil said…
Fascinating blog, and an interesting way to spend your birthday in Moscow, spent my last one on a plane coming back here.

Added a link to your blog from mine.
Happy Birthday all the way from sunny Florida...
Hoping to spend MY birthday in Russia next year too!

Your gal is so sweet!
Annie said…
Ah....I see what you mean about the photos. They REALLY work. I especially love the magic one...where we see the cake, then look out the window, and Surprise! There is E hiding.

Poor baby. Reminds me of my Nastya, whose father was good to her, too. She was just crying for him the other night. He tried to give her the best gift ever, a family.

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