The afternoon sun bangs off the frozen river. E is with her mother now, for a handful of hours.
She cried before she left, her half-built lego restaurant on the coffee table. E stood up, her movements stiff and awkward. Walking like a tiny robot, she came to my chair and pulled herself onto my lap. I was still waking up, a cold cup of coffee next to my hands. She slumped against me.
"I don't want to go to Mom's house." She tells me under her breath.
"I know." I say, instinctively.
She lets out a long sigh.
"But it's only for part of one day a week now." I tell her.
She nods, her chin trembling.
"And you need to go and take care of the cats." I add. "They miss you."
She looks up at me.
"You have to teach them English." I say.
She cries some more.
I hold her for some time, watching two plumes of smoke curling into the cold sky.
"Life." She says. "Life is a thing."
"Yes it is, kiddo," I tell her. "Yes it is."
We take the elevator downstairs, and she is jumpy. Two nights before she had a terrible dream that we were separated. She was in an elevator. Before I could follow her inside, the doors closed and she never saw me again. She woke up at three, and it took almost two hours to get her back to sleep. She clung to my arms long after she began to snore. Even in sleep, she would not let go easily.
It is bitter cold. My breath freezes inside my mouth. I walk fast, my hands curled up, shoved deep in my pockets. I cross a bridge and the frozen river. I think of E's life, and how she wakes up each day wondering where she will sleep, and who will take her from school. I think of how her mother constantly lies to her, fabricating elaborate excuses for living half a mile from us and leaving her with me after she plans to take her for three nights, then two, then one, then none. She does not call for days, pretending it is all so normal.
The cobblestones are noisy under my heels. Old Arbat is a tourist alley where no cars can drive. It reminds me of Astor Place with the graffitied bricks, with the students laughing and jumping around in sloppy groups. It has been overrun with coffee chains and sneaker stores just like my old neighborhood in New York, a new one every few weeks it seems.
In the distance, a line of people are dancing. I hear a harmonium, and finger cymbals. It is the Hare Krishnas, twisting in a ragged unison. Their faces are painted. They wear white sheets over jackets and sweatpants. The song is beautiful, slicing into the cold air.
I stand for a moment as they pass. The music is soaring, their voices raised, hands held high. My eyes are wet from blinking. I feel myself crying for almost a minute, the last look on E's face behind the car window swelling up inside me. I think of when she was born, and how she has grown to be so very brave.
The music is fading. I dry my face with the edge of a scarf N bought for me. I need to go buy a music book for E's guitar class.
I am almost there.