A fat little lady breathes very loud. Her nose a long hook, her sweater ill-fit she stares at our documents, flipping the edges of pages with a yellow fingernail. There are ones in English, photocopied and notarized translations, a forest of papers spread across her little desk. E is squeezed next to me. N is explaining things, shushing me when I try to interject. I am not helping. At one point the woman shrugs her shoulders and stalks off.
We are ushered into a large office, then sit at a long table. Two more women are there, their long blonde hair in elaborate upsweeps. Costume jewelry, brightly colored sweaters, ballpoint pens resting next to books with tiny notes on them they ask E questions like her birthday, or counting to ten. They ask her a subtraction question that she gets wrong, then right. I try to breathe. I stare at the blank yellow walls, smell the musty textbooks.
They are happy to accept her. In a few moments they understand everything about her mother and our situation. Smiling blandly at me, I see they sympathize enough to accept the bizarre pile of documents we offered. They could be difficult, but chose not to be. The profound absence of her Russian mother, the overt love of papers with the right stamp on them, the orders to wait in lines for additional pages and stamps has evaporated. Today we dodged a bullet.
This is where E will start school next year. There are mosaics on the walls, clusters of noisy children, tall windows that look out onto a snow-covered playground. E looks up at me after she answers each question.
"Papina dotchka." One of the women says.
Literally, father's daughter, a little girl raised by a single dad.
Outside we jump around on the icy sidewalk. It is -25 celsius and we half-run to the car. Sitting inside, we try to decide what to do. It is almost three in the afternoon. There is a wall of traffic on Kutuzovsky. I say if we go to rinok for five minutes I can buy everything we need for a shrimp risotto. E claps her her hands. N smiles.
We tromp through the slippery lanes, all holding hands. We buy arborio rice from three dark-haired men who keep asking if I am Turkish. I am sure they are overcharging us. We buy extra things like fresh goat's cheese from my favorite lady. Her gold teeth shine in the dim light as I greet her, boasting about my little entourage. We buy fresh bread and pastries. E is already eating hers as we leave.
Driving home with the radio on, the music splashing around the tiny car I begin to relax. E is in the best school we could find in the district. It may be a lion's den. It may be a haven. There is no way to know until next September, but at least we chose it.