I have been in many rooms like this, some smaller, some bigger. One did not have a window, and I could not see the sound engineer, or other faces hovering in the darkness asking me to speak a little faster, or discussing a bit of grammar. Today the room is big and white. I stand in front of the microphone, focused on the hands and lips on the tv screen of some fumfering, methody old actor they cast. It was raining when they filmed, and between the sirens and the traffic the voices got lost. Today I must act twenty years older, muttering and stammering and smiling through the words for an hour or two. The director shows up, shouting "louder" and "faster" and "more emotion" like every single Russian director I have recorded for.
I find it ironic, being cast to replace the voice of a man in his sixties. Maybe I am getting older? I ask myself in between takes, hearing my voice trying to rattle like his. Actually, it all sounds bizarre but maybe this is just to get the film into a festival.
Dismissed, emerging from the basement with a fresh pile of rubles that I shove into my pocket, I find my way back to the main street. I know where I am. The old office is not far from here, an expensive sanctuary that outlived its purpose. There were fights with E's mother there, in that tiny room and the hallways, eventually the parking lot the day she tried to get me deported. People hung their heads from windows to see us waving hands wildly, the screaming in English so odd, indecipherable for them. The warnings from the landlord, and me taking claim of the space for myself. There were long rainy days where E filled the room with scribbles on pieces of paper as I worked. No, there is a place I would visit instead, and my feet have already brought me across Smolenskaya.
The sidewalks are half empty. The opera house is the same, voices surfacing as people pass the open doors. I make my way around it, down the back alley. The convent is surrounded by a long wall, and the old entrance is closed.
I enter, crossing myself.
The grounds are clean now, the construction almost finished. I miss the messy wooden boards that used to create a path through the mud, as great piles of white stone stood in the dust. The workers moved in a choreographed silence. Here is the tiny, ramshackle garden with odd groups of irises and tulips. The three graves, half-overgrown with grass and weeds. I can smell honeysuckle and roses.
The door to the tiny chapel is locked. Next to the stairs, an old woman positions loaves on a table. There used to be a window in another building to buy tiny apple pastries and black bread. I approach her, asking for a cinnamon roll that E loves to eat, a few palmiers for me, and a jar of jam as long as I am here. I ask her how to enter the chapel and she points around the corner.
The path leads me to the large building that was being rebuilt. I go in, past security guards and shining silver vats of holy water. The icons from the tiny chapel are all here now. I recognize them, oddly out of place on the bright white walls. Another room, and I buy three candles as I always did. They are huge now. The main room is bright. Old women are sweeping, wiping candle drippings from the floor. A scaffolding stands in the corner, three stories tall. The sweet smell of frankincense and smoke moves across my face. I stand in silence for some time, then approach the icon of the two angels. I light one of the candles, but it is too big for the holder. I wonder for a moment if I can wander the chapel looking for a better place for them, feeling foolish. A man approaches me, gestures to tip the candle upside down so the drips fill the holder. I do, holding it for a moment, and it stays. Nodding thanks, I light the next two. I think of the tiny old chapel, dark and smoky when I visited in winter, running out of the office in desperation. I came every day it seemed, and they grew to know my face. It was a great comfort then, just to be recognized, to be familiar. I lit candles and bought bread and stared at the icons until I felt strong enough to walk back outside, to get a little girl from school, to face the madwoman, to make money, to make dinner, to make anything I could.
I leave the place quickly, passing the security guard then opening the big door quietly. Birds are chirping like mad outside the front gate when I turn for one last look.
Pulling the palmier from my bag, it crunches wildly in my mouth. It is stale, very stale.
My stomach growls, empty in the afternoon sun. I force it down, then another more dry than the first. Disappointment sweeps over me. I think of every place that is gone now, in New York, in Bologna, here. I think of turning corners, expecting to see some time capsule, something that was preserved and how often it has been replaced by something cleaner, empty and false.
A parable surfaces in my thoughts, something about how you know you are getting older when your memories are more important than your plans for the future. Forcing anger aside, the thought of that tiny messy garden remains. If it will be there next time, I have no idea. Soaking the palmier in my mouth until it is soft enough to gulp down, the city absorbs me. It is time to cross a bridge and take E from school. Time to make dinner and sit with N telling stories, leaning back on chairs with the sun low in the sky.