I am sitting in the messy living room, surrounded by E's toys, her half-made bed. I am almost catatonic at this point. Somehow, I feel N's warmth. I can taste coffee a little bit. The rest is empty. Lost. I feel like I am outside of my bones. I can't smell anything. I know it is cold outside. I see the hard little flakes flipping around. I am not hungry. I am beyond sadness. I have not seen E for four days now, and do not know when I will.
Last Friday was the most recent court trial. I walked briskly that morning, taking E to school, wrapping her ponytail with an extra bit of flip in it. We made plans for me to take her a bit early, to get an ice cream and maybe make some shrimp for dinner. She smiled at me, her giant brown eyes connected to her smile. She touched me gently on the shoulder.
"Good luck." She whispered in my ear.
She disappeared into the classroom. That is the last time I saw her.
In the street I have to walk quickly to be on time. I pass the man who has a face like it was hit with a frying pan. He nods, smiles, his single tooth jutting into the cold air. I pass a blind woman in heels, tapping her red and white cane across the slippery sidewalk. She smiles too. I feel the day kicking in, shoving my hands in my pockets and plowing down the street.
I had a night of no sleep. I woke up a number of times, my body itchy with nerves. I did nod off at one point and dreamt up some kind of screwball comedy. I was part of some group that had to sneak an 18 ton truck onto a commuter plane. We were some sort of dream team. We had the ashes of a dead friend with us. It seemed like we could somehow pull it off.
Entering the courthouse I feel a muddy taste in the back of my throat, like I just swallowed a lot of sea water. I sit, waiting for my lawyer and translator to arrive. I look at some notes I have made. Last year, this was one of the first days when I was living in the new apartment, a freshly single father. I had taken my guitar and saxophone, balancing them precariously on E's carriage as I trundled them down the avenue. People stopped and stared. A pretty self-explanatory story for to mull over in their glistening SUVs.
That carriage eventually broke one day, and E toppled into the snow laughing her head off. We left it right there, with cheap pink plastic flipping around in the wind, the broken wheel already freezing into the wet sidewalk. The next morning, gone.
In the courthouse the clock ticks terribly loud. The judge enters and we stand. Statements are made. E's mother tells a pack of lies. I respectfully object. I point out that perjury is a serious crime in America, and that obviously goes unpunished in Russia. The judge is young, blonde. She speaks incredibly quickly. She wears black tights and white sandals. She leaves the room for ten minutes at a time, hoping we can come to some peaceable agreement. This is impossible, as E's mother is out for blood. She is suddenly trying to erase history. She is suddenly embarrassed. But she is in Russia, and there are no laws to stop her from lying, manipulating, cheating, abusing, terrorizing or blackmailing. She can do whatever she wants to - drunk, buck naked and beating her child and the Russians will not bat an eye. This is Russia, get used to it. If you don't like it, there's the door. Foreigners and children are little bits of paper flying around in the wind. Wherever they land, whatever they need is of no importance or concern. Here they protect the mother's rights to lie, cheat and steal until she grows fat and weary of the game. Here every custody battle goes to the mother, no matter what kind of monster she is.
The clock is still insanely loud. Nothing is resolved. The judge removes all language that describes me as a wife-beater. She removes all language that puts me in a bad light. E's mother writes a document that says she has no negative comments to say about me. She signs it, with a sneer on her face, flipping the paper back at my lawyer. My translator is exhausted, a kind man who speaks English very softly.
The trial is over. In ten days the divorce will be official. Nothing about E is resolved. I pay everyone, walk out into the street. I think the worst is over now. We can all get on with our lives. I go home, check a few emails, shovel leftovers into my mouth. I take a short meeting on old Arbat. It is 4. I think to buy a star to put at the top of our tiny christmas tree with E later on. The store is close to here. But then a tiny voice inside me says, no - -go to the school now and take her.
And I am suddenly running down the icy streets. I fall once, twice - one of my knees is definitely bleeding. I am out of breath, almost there. My back is wet with sweat under many layers. I enter the school, up the dark stairwell and into E's classroom. I look at the backs of their heads, do not see her ponytail. Maybe she is in the bathroom. "Where is E?" I ask. The teacher tells me her mother took her hours ago.
There are vicious text messages on my phone from her. Threats. There is an email I will come home to. A sort of death sentence. A promise I will never see E again. That she will punish me for saying she was a liar today. I try to call, to speak to E for a minute. The phone is switched off.
No surprise that I take that half bottle of red wine and drink it in silence in the living room, in the dark. No surprise N finds me this way. Holds me, talks me through it. She makes me sit at the kitchen table. Eat something. Drink some tea.
But I feel nothing. I know what has happened.
And when I go to take E like I do every Sunday I am turned back. I am told the police will come if I try to take her. I call E on the phone. She says she does not want to see me. Her mother is whispering in her ears, and then she says maybe I can see her on Tuesday.
"But today is Sunday." I say.
"I don't want to see you." E says, her voice choking in her throat.