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the white table

The days are not long. The nights are short. Guitars are hiding in cases, with scraps of paper tucked inside. The pen is full. There is a fresh notebook, with creamy pages. The little white desk is in the middle of the living room, a cascade of receipts and laundry perched on it.

I clean it off, have lunch as it stares back at me. This focal point, this fulcrum where my thoughts become real, this cheap folding table from Ikea. It is familiar, and patient.

the kitchen table is all that matters (before and after)

N's head is on my shoulder. The sun has travelled far above the windows. It is late Saturday morning, in an empty house with just the lazy traffic and some dogs barking from downstairs. I kiss her shoulder, let her sleep in. I wander the rooms, make some coffee, splash apple vinegar into the bottom of a white ceramic cup, then top it off with milk. It will sour in about fifteen minutes. It is a new way to make pancakes - light and fluffy, littered with a constellation of miniature holes. My old ones were leaden - dense, moist, and crisp on the outsides. 

There are some plums going bad, so I make a fast compote with cloves and a splash of cognac. The kitchen grows pungent with that intense plummy tartness that pinches up the insides of your cheeks. 

N wanders in, one of my shirts the most suggestive robe. She is not ready for conversation yet, just coffee. I spoon batter into a pan, standing with a spatula on my hip. She tastes the plums and her eyebrows go up. 

As each pancake grows bubbles that then pop, I flip them for a moment then onto plates. N dots each one with Irish butter, knife in hand. It is our Saturday ballet, our slow tango, when eyes meet and no words are spoken. 

Our kitchen table is a dance floor, also a confession booth, a playground, yes with chairs that need fixing, next crusted with dough after I roll out fresh pasta. A worktable, a Lego land, a place to wrap presents. It is where we all sit together, the only place.

I dream that the ceiling is leaking. Chunks of plaster and wood are falling on me, and I cannot do anything to stop them. Waking up in the middle of the night, I feel that rare cold air that washes across us at this hour. I pull the blankets to my chin, try to shrug it off. 

I wake up at nine, calling E, calling her mother. I want to make sure taking her early today is OK, even though I heard her agree over the phone. I have learned to double check everything when dealing with a madwoman who forgets as easily as she changes our plans. The phones are all turned off.

I dress quickly, splash some of the leftover plum on a stale piece of bread and lock the door quietly behind me. I imagine I will be back with E and we can all have breakfast together in an hour.

I buzz the outside door, and they let me in. At the apartment door, I ring the bell. No one answers. I call the phones that are all off. I ring the bell again, then hear it being turned off from inside. The button is useless now. I call all of the numbers again. Nothing.

I bang on the door. I start to imagine E is left alone inside, or everyone is drunk, or maybe E is not even there and they have really kidnapped her. Maybe they took E to some remote village for the month, as they have been threatening to. My hand is tired, but I keep knocking.

Suddenly my phone rings. She asks why I am so early. Before I can remind her that she agreed to this, that I do not enjoy waking up at nine on a Sunday to walk for forty minutes and NOT get my kid, she is screaming that scream. She is babbling in a mix of Russian and English, in that wounded, aggressive tone that I have heard a million times. She is typing out elaborate text messages now, and I reply calmly, reminding her why I am here at this hour. She says she is calling the police. I ask to talk to E. She says E doesn't want to talk to me. I tell her I will talk to E and she can just listen. I say I just want to hear her breathing, as I need to know she is ok. She turns off all the phones again. I go back to knocking on the door. I hear the sounds echoing in the corridor. Ah, the neighbors must be really thrilled right now, I think to myself. But E is more important.

And then something happens that I did not expect. Five policemen are here, bristling for trouble. I stand quietly, calmly. In the best Russian I can muster, I explain why I am here. The door opens, and I glimpse E in the dark apartment. Her eyes wide, I see she is shaking.

The police are annoyed, but official. In a few breaths I understand we all have to go to the station now. There is someone in the apartment - a woman who watches E sometimes, but her mother drags her along, kissing her and whispering to her. I see E's body, stiff and clumsy on the stairs. There is no reason for her to be going with us.

The police put me in the back seat of their car, doors slamming quickly and we are at the station in a few minutes. They talk to me casually, eyes rolling, chins thrust out. I know this is a nuisance for them, but I do not like any of it. In dangerous situations, I have found that I am actually quite calm, maybe too calm. I was held up at gunpoint during a gang initiation in a New York subway station many years ago. I imagined the gun was plastic. I argued with the two teenagers who wanted my wallet, my watch. It turns out they could have killed me right there. The gun was real.

Inside the station, a massive man sits behind a glass window. Both of his hands are bandaged in wild swirls of gauze. Knuckles, thumbs and half of his palms are yellow from iodine underneath the loose fabric. His shock of silver hair stands fiercely.

E's mother asks for forms to fill out. She writes and writes, smiling and laughing to herself. Her face is red. Her hands are shaking. E is crying, squeezed onto her lap. I take a few pictures with my cel phone. E's mother complains to the big man behind the glass. He shrugs his shoulders, tells her I am doing nothing wrong.

I get E's attention, and smile. I shake my head slowly, telling her not to worry. I am talking to myself saying the same thing. I hold out my fingers making the sign of a scissor. She makes the sign of a rock. We play this way for a while, counting to three silently and then seeing who wins. Her mother is oblivious, staring at her paper as she tries to fill the entire page.

She signs it with a flourish and grabs E's chest, running out of the station with my daughter swinging from her arms like a giant rag doll. I leap to my feet, tell the police to stop her. I need her to say what time I will take E today in front of them. They bring her back inside. E's face is red with tears. Her mother is furious. She mumbles that two o'clock is acceptable.

They disappear behind a door.

I sit alone for a few minutes. I tell the big guy behind the glass that I would like to make a statement. I ask to take the paper home so N can fill it out for me. They ask me to wait.

I call N.
"Babe?" I say, in a hushed voice. "Listen - I'm in the police station. Don't freak out. I am going to need help making a statement."
She has gone from sleepy murmuring to wide awake in the time it takes me to say this.
"Sorry I had to wake you up like this." I say.
The big man behind the glass is waving at me.
"I'll call you right back." I say, and hang up.

A young police man arrives. He speaks some English, and invites me upstairs. We take the elevator. I study his short blonde hair, the stubble on his chin. His gun is small, a snub nose hiding inside a worn leather holster.

We sit in a giant room littered with cheap desks. Pictures of wanted criminals are thumbtacked to the walls, flipping around in the late morning breeze. He asks me questions, trying to piece the story together from the beginning. His English is half ok. It is hard to express the details, for him to grasp them. I ask him if I can take the forms home to fill out.

N calls me. She is coming, just looking for the address.

We wait. I learn about his life, how he makes $700 a month, how he still lives with his mother, how he finds a way to have sex with his girlfriend when both of them live with family. He asks me what I like about Moscow, and I say rinok. "Ah, meat." He says, nodding. "Meat is good." I nod wildly, waving my hands around, talking about spices and slow grilling, about how all of the restaurants make me sick. I tell him I write pieces about food and life in Moscow for some websites. "Ah, like Facebook." He says. I nod a little. "Like google, you write for." He says. I decide to agree.

N arrives, her eyes wide as she takes in the big empty room.

We spend more than an hour making my statement, cross-referencing signed documents I have, creating a timeline. He writes carefully, without emotion. Just the facts. We fill a page. He prints it out from the computer, and I must write a long sentence in Russian then sign my name. He wants to help us. He tells me the police are tired of these crazy women making work for them when there are much more important things to do.

Downstairs, the man behind the glass studies N and me. He pauses dramatically then stamps my statement and shoves it in a drawer. I ask if anyone can see this document, especially E's mother. He roars with laughter and says no one will ever see this document.

We thank them, trying to talk through the thick glass. They are already distracted with something else, some information on a screen.

"Ok, criminals - go make some more crimes." The young policeman tells us, cracking a wry smile.

We drive a bit. I play back the whole morning now - my instincts are letting go. I breathe. We have coffee and pastries, our stomachs empty and sour by this time. It is already two.

I take E, her hand instantly squeezing mine. She looks up at me.

"Mom was laughing a lot when we left the station." She says, in a sort of monotone. "She said you are going to prison now, and I will never see you again."

Anger rises in my chest.

"But I'm here now, right?" I ask her.
She nods once, slowly.
"That's all that matters kiddo." I say under my breath.
She stops in the middle of the stairs, holds her arms up. I carry her the rest of the way, sit in the back of N's car with her, trying to crack a few jokes and lighten the mood.

At home, she is starving, having not eaten anything today and it's almost three. We make chilaquiles together, her shredding the tortilla into pieces with a sort of reckless joy, then cracking eggs and splattering the shells across the table. I stare at her for some time, absorbing the truth of her short life. I wonder what she will think of all this when she is older. What will she remember? What will she forget?

I tell myself, she will remember the kitchen table. She will remember some cold grapefruit juice, and a big plate of eggs that we made together.


Omg, now that's an adventure! Thankfully, it seems all ended well and I sure hope there are no more trips to no police stations for you in the future! And E will surely remember how her dad never really left her side and was always there for her - and this would be all that would really matter.
liv said…
I can't imagine how anyone could wish you harm. How anyone could not see the good, the love, the kindness that shines from your eyes.

I don't really remember the shouting, or the food or what else happened on those days, I only remember my grandfather picking me up. What it felt like to be up, up so high. My arms around his neck, his head as big as the moon to me. The warmth of his face warming mine. It was so safe to be up high where all of it couldn't touch me and his face was the only thing I could see. Beautiful face.

Maybe, like me, she will remember being up. So close to your beautiful face, full of good and love and kindness.

I am so proud of you.
Marco North said…
Liv - thanks for sharing your story. In truth, E's mother suffers from Borderline Disorder, and will never get treated for it. She is not a fully functioning person, just a bundle of impulses and nerves suffering from extreme narcissism rolled into other symptoms. She is also very very smart, which makes her a confoundingly difficult person to manage. Love means nothing to her. She recognizes a sort of hierarchy, control and money. The rest is noise to her.
liv said…
Well then, in the face of that Marco, you are most valiant.

I hope that the energy and respect sent your way by those of us who follow your words in some small way compounds your strength.
She will remember that there is always something to trump the next worst thing. Rock trumps scissors...Daddy trumps fear. I wish you Grace...

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