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no invitation

We are at a 3 year old's birthday party in the back room of a cafe. Music is pumping from a tiny speaker. Balloon animals are popping, and waving in the air. A man in a yellow dinosaur costume dances wildly. Parents snap pictures with satisfied smiles on their faces.

A little girl approaches gingerly and stands in the doorway, straying from her parents somewhere inside the restaurant. She cannot be more than three. It must be hard to ignore all of the noise coming from this room packed with celebration. There is a perfect little pony tail at the back of her head. She hesitates, as one foot poises in the air and then rests back down. How to understand that she was not invited. How to understand the laughter, the loose jumping bodies, the presents piled high on the window. None of this connects to her. There is a little plate of food waiting for her back there, in the quiet restaurant. Maybe a warm bowl of soup, thick with noodles. I watch her for some time.

That night, her empty e…

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.


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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