Kutuzovsky is dead silent. Eight lanes of traffic stand perfectly still, waiting for the motorcade of black cars to whip past. I walk carefully across the icy sidewalk. I can hear my own thoughts, smell the diesel in the air. Foolish to say things are somehow back to normal, as normal here means nothing. Normal means every day is a complete unknown. No plans can be made, just treading water and watching the seasons pass.
She arrived late Wednesday night. Filthy, her face covered in dry snot, coughing heavily, hungry. I fed her homemade soup, cut the knots from her hair, gave her a hot bath, poured cough syrup down her throat. I held her for a long time as we watched our favorite films together - until she fell asleep. Her legs dangling across my lap, I stared down at her face now clean, her cheeks gaining some color.
E stayed for a few days, and then we found ourselves together for Christmas Eve, just a random day in Moscow for last-minute shopping and double-dates. We spread cookies and chocolates and pink jellybeans across a plate, poured out a glass of juice and placed it by the tree. E asked me if Santa was really coming all of the way from New York just for her. I told her we had a short talk on the phone while she was at her mother's house and yes, he was indeed coming. She curled up under the covers, her tiny hands pinned to her chin. She smiled up at me, closing her eyes and relaxing into the pillow in one simple motion.
Later, I ate the cookies, savoring them. I downed the juice in one gulp, drank some cognac from the same glass without washing it. I had forgotten to buy wrapping paper in the madness of last week, so I placed the gifts as well as I could under the tree. The dark room blinked warm and quiet.
The next morning I saw her silhouette knocking on the frosted glass of my bedroom door. It was after eight. She was sleeping much better now that she had been here a few days, going to sleep with real food in her tiny belly.
"Pop." She whispered.
I struggled into some pyjamas.
"Yeah, kiddo?" I asked.
"Pop, he came for me." She said, still whispering. "Santa came for me."
"I told you he would." I said, rubbing the sleep from my eyes and grasping for the coffee maker.
We spent the morning opening gifts, pressing batteries into the right slots and dancing around the living room. I made french toast and E served it back to me, as if she was running her own restaurant.
"Pop?" She asked, stopping her play. "How come Santa didn't bring YOU anything?"
A laugh jumped from my mouth.
We stared at each other for a moment, cracking smiles.
Saturday night she was back at her mother's. The woman's voice on the phone sounded as if she was dying when she called to say she was downstairs. I brought her down, E squeezing my hand tighter than normal. It was just for the night, or so we had been told.
"Take me early tomorrow." She said, stretching the words out strangely.
Upstairs I looked at the mess we had made, trying to decide if I should clean up now or later. I caught myself, wondering if she would really be back tomorrow, wondering if the madness would sweep us into its messy hands one more time. I sat in the kitchen, staring out at the new snow that was falling, at sparrows flitting around the darkening sky.