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you are not there

We are taking the little one for a ride on her new sled. It is bright orange, with a fuzzy black and white seat cover to keep her extra warm. Her tiny hands in tiny gloves hold the sides as tight as she can. I pull her down a path, shouting "woohooo" and then she replies "woohoo". N's turn is next, pulling her more schoolgirl than mother for a few minutes. There are other parents with children on sleds passing us. Their eyes straight forward, faces completely blank they slip by in silence. I flash a smile to them, and they do not even look at me. I am not there, just another tree leaning towards the stream that runs below.

There are ducks still, flapping around the brackish water and we throw pieces of stale bread to them. I start to think, not about the complete absence of smiles in this culture. I stopped asking about that long ago, told over and again that smiles are reserved for home, behind closed doors. But I wonder, for the children -  these wiggling bu…

the first day (a dress rehearsal)

I am pulling E’s hair into two rushed braids. The air will be cold outside. The wet stems from a bunch of sunflowers are wrapped in a kitchen towel and are dripping down my arm. There will be no famous portrait of us on this important day. No, just my phone thrust into the cool air in front of us, randomly snapping as E’s neck cranes from the new jacket, her feet turning in crisp shoes, me resting my chin on her shoulder.

E’s phone is ringing and ringing. Her mother is yelling at her, even though we will be early. She is standing and waiting, her voice shrill in the morning as E hangs up. We cross a giant street. We walk through a park where the fountains have already been turned off.  I think of that epic driveway on the farm, a few thousand yards long. I think of my brother, sunburned from the long summer with his shirt already untucked by the time the bus comes.

E’s purple phone rings again, and her mother is howling at her. She explains we are just across the street, that we are still early. We take the underpass. No accordion player today, a gypsy mother and child are on the flat stones, crumpled against a wall. The phone rings again and E is gesturing wildly, saying she will see us in a minute.

We are the second ones to arrive.
E’s mother grabs her arm, yanks her towards her, and whispers in her ear.
She tries to shout at me.
“We are going to be together for three hours today.” I say. “So, calm the fuck down.”
E squeezes my hand once, and tilts her chin up to me.

Her new teacher stands, one hand up in a half wave.  We meet her, and E presents the giant bouquet of sunflowers. Everyone else has mixed bunches of roses and Gerbers, party favors and ribbons whipping around them.

E goes with her group and the parents and grandmothers and odd uncles climb the five flights of stairs, finding the door to the great hall is locked, so we go down a flight and around, entering through the backstage.
Music is blaring two different songs from speakers at opposite ends of the room. I think of that Tom Waits line about feeling crazy, like he is hearing two songs at the same time. I understand this is how schizophrenics experience the world.

The room fills. A fleet of Russian girls tromp into a line of reserved seats.  The air is electrified. They are all in skyscraper heels, with long hair that is flipped from their cheeks every minute or two. I think of N, still in bed. I think of the pictures I have seen of her, when she was sixteen and how she hasn’t changed much. She still has that magic so many women lose, that lock of the eyes that goes right through a man.

There are not enough chairs. Babies are screaming. Music is cranking out of the speakers like a wedding at full tilt but no one is dancing. It is just after eight in the morning. 

There are slow speeches. Older students read careful statements with a measured, emotionless rhythm. The children march out, and sit in chairs in the front. I crane my neck to see E. She raises a palm, waiting for me to see her. She does not wave, just folds her fingers back once I make a face at her. I think of my first day of school and the long yellow bus that emerged from the fog on our single lane dirt road. I remember sitting with my hand on the window, and the lavender sky above the trees. There was a giant parking lot. I was alone, then followed everyone through the front doors. 

My eyes are getting wet. A pressure on my stomach is pressing the air inside me up into the top of my head. My lips are slack. I cannot feel them. Someone is giving a halted speech in English. Children are fidgeting in their chairs. I tell myself to cry later, but not here. Not now.

"The teacher opens the door to knowledge." The woman on the stage says. "But you must enter by yourself."
Small applause splashes around the audience as she goes back to her seat.
A little girl is hoisted onto the shoulders of a young man. She rings a bell.
Everyone snaps pictures.

There is a party in the restaurant next to the school. Children crowd around tables shoveling pizza and ice cream into their mouths. E wiggles around, making jokes with a new friend. Her mother hovers like a raven staring down at a dying animal it will eat later. E will spend the of rest of Saturday with her.
I take her to the car, crouching down as we look into each other's eyes.
"We picked a good school." I say.
She nods once.
"This is a big day." I say. "Part of your life starts today."
"I know." E says. "Even if we do not learn today, it is the first day of school."
"It's like a dress rehearsal." I say. "A practice for Monday, when class really starts."
She nods, and then her mouth opens as a thought comes to her.
"The next important day of my life will be my bar mitzfah." She says.
A laugh jumps out of my mouth.
"Where did you hear about bar mitzfahs from?' I ask. "From Hey Arnold?"
She shrugs her shoulders, smirking.
I wonder how to explain she was baptized in a Russian Orthodox church, but she knows that already. I think to let it go, to explain things when she is older.
"Well, for girls it is called a bot mitzfah." I tell her.
"Ok." She chirps.
I buckle her seatbelt around her and say goodbye.

Walking home, I go to the same flower store and buy sunflowers for N. I think of every phone call and appointment she has arranged as we ferried from clinic to doctor, from office to office until all of E's papers were in order. I think of the last time I bought her flowers and a wave of embarrassment washes over me. They are beautiful and heavy in my arms as I walk home. That handful of tears I choked back in the big room does not come. 

I will wash some Chanterelles. I will peel potatoes into the thinnest slices and saute them in olive oil with a few sprigs of rosemary from the plant on the windowsill. I will crack some eggs and light the oven. I will present her with a frittata and a good cup of coffee when she wakes up. 

I think of the deep tradition of buying flowers for the teacher here, and how they are so significant. I want to tell N that she teaches me how to be a man when I show her the sunflowers, but I don't.
I just say thank you.


liv said…
She looks so proud to be with you. Her love for you is overwhelmingly evident in her smile.

Who buys you flowers? Lover of everyone. There just aren't many like you, Marco. And cook. YOU are the treasure.
Mely said…
Thank you, Marco. I enjoyed this post so much.

Be Bless.

Mely said…
Thank you, Marco. I enjoyed this post so much.

Be Bless.

expatlogue said…
Beautiful as always, love the "splashes of applause" and the description of raven-woman! Great writing, I wish, I wish, I wish...

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