There is construction going on outside the windows. Random digging happens one day with men and shovels, the next with backhoes - deeper into the same hole. Three old women wander around, waving papers sheathed in plastic. They shout at each other, dropping them, almost falling in the hole. Great pipes roll loose across the parking lot. Workers with metal grinders spray sparks and that ozone smell for hours. And then they all leave as abruptly as they appeared. The great hole sits, unfenced. A man sleeps behind the steering wheel of the backhoe. An unsmoked cigarette dangles from his loose fingers.
The phone rings. It is E's mother, forcing her latest blackmail through. She has documents I need to walk safely in the city and wants $600 for them. I breathe the foul metallic air sifting in, thinking over and over "do not negotiate with terrorists". She takes (technically kidnaps) E early from school sometimes on the days I am supposed to take her and drives her around, saying she will only give her to me if I pay something. It's the simplest equation every terrorist uses. Find the weakness and use it against the target.
I stare at the hole outside the window as she screams at me, about how I am nothing, about how she will make me suffer, about how I should be very kind and nice and quiet with her or she will really show me what she can do. I imagine this filthy, crumbling mouth in the asphalt is hers. It helps me to ignore what she says, rattling off her monologue about my failings, my inadequacies, and my pitiful existence according to her supreme judgment. I know if I interrupt her it will only go on longer. I know if I hang up, she will just call back, or write it all in various emails to me, my partner, my clients, for all I know the postman will get an earful. If I listen and get it over the price may go down a bit. Of course this used to really destroy me, until I understood that she has a real mental illness, and these are just the howls of confused nerve endings. This is just the chaos and random lashing out that happens in nature, like a bit of lightning destroying a tree, only I am the only tree in her bizarre universe. I am hit by this lightning every single time.
She finishes, pleased with herself, satisfied she has really put me in my place. I smile blandly at leaves that are falling. I try to quietly reason with her, gain some tactical footing, force a few glaring facts in front of her. It's a waste of time, but I need to keep up appearances. I need to act the same way, be consistent. When I act differently then she does too. I can predict when she will lash out, now. If I change my game, then hers will too. It will cost me $600 for documents she gets for free. No dodging that bullet today. I've been managing this situation for years now. Until I accepted the fact that she was sick I took it all personally. Now I know she's kind of a fleshy robot without conscience or adult emotions. It's hard for a robot to really hurt your feelings. But, they can still kidnap your kid. They can still make false police reports about you, spread vicious lies about you. Robots can do that just fine. Maybe better than people, actually.
I do live in constant chaos because of this, but have found a way to keep it from stopping me. This could be my excuse to do nothing, to crawl up in a ball and cry all day. I look at E, who lives in the same chaos, never knowing when or where she will be sleeping, when she will be bargained for and paid for. I find a way to hold myself together, because she needs me to. And like Strindberg's rose that grows from the mud, there are magnificent moments in my life as well.
On Saturday, I was cleaning the apartment, washing E's school clothes and trying to make the empty place smell fresh. A bouquet of orange roses sat in a vase for N to discover. I threw out the garbage, bought eggs, milk and sat on the couch staring at myself across the room. I looked thin in the mirror after getting sick last week. We had gone out for dinner a few days earlier and before we even got home, I asked N to pull over. She was laughing and pointing at fireworks splashing in the sky over Arbat. I threw up into the street as a policeman watched us. I threw up everything I could, and then we drove home. I drank water and lay very still, with N holding me, talking to me quietly and I threw up all night.
But now it was Saturday, and my stomach was fine. I had my documents now, the money and the sacrifice had been offered. Now we could make some pasta, maybe stay in. Now we could have long talks in the kitchen. Now I can watch N's hands moving as she talks, her bracelets and rings bouncing around. I can watch her lips purse, staying just a bit open as she searches for a word in English.
And in the morning, I can cook us a three egg omelette to share. And the coffee is laughing from the orange pot, waiting for sugar and N's hands.