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the empty

The fat girl as they call her, came to school with a hypodermic needle in her backpack. It may have been to defend herself, it may have been to instigate something. She comes from a broken home and this is her second or third school. E steers clear of her, and the bullies she tangles with. It was never understood  - how things began, who threw the first insult, the first punch, the first grabbed book but the end is a chronic cycle of violence. At one point, the girl's mother got the police involved and this was seen as offensive, a step too far. The police did not resolve anything so it was all just a lot of saber rattling. That is the most common sound here. The empty threat.

Last week, there was a sobrani, sort of a cross between a parent-teacher conference and a school meeting. I was busy, so E went by herself and took notes. Five minutes in she messaged me, that I was wise not to be there. Nothing about this girl was going to be resolved.
"Boys will be boys" was all …

How to drink coffee

Our coats spattered with rain, we step into the metro car. Balancing a coffee in one hand, I see there are no empty seats for E. The train lurches forward, and I press my back against the wall, hands across E's chest as she leans against me. There is an announcement that plays on the speakers every time the train stops. I learned what it said after a year or two here. "Please give your seat to old people and pregnant women." Children are implied.

A woman leans on the wall across from us, an infant in a stroller beside her. She wears only black and has a giant expensive looking watch. She shoves a man sitting on the bench next to her and gestures at us. He pretends he was sleeping, and stands up. I guide E to the empty seat, saying my thanks to both of them. He is not looking. 

The infant stares up at me, eyes wide and alert. Her mother is reading a magazine. 

I think of the years I spent photographing babies for a childrenswear designer. We were both in our twenties. She dug deep into her imagination, expressing herself with Italian silk, with white linen. We found models in the supermarket, in parks. Any girl that looked like she would fit a size three, or a one year old would become candidates. She paid in free dresses, which were worth quite a lot so the shoots were always a mad rush of quirky children and mothers nervous and sublime. If I could work quickly, the images were transcendent. She wanted no cute poses, no smiles. No, she wanted the inner world of the child to paint across their face as if they were alone with the pear trees and the flowers, as if we were not there with reflectors and light meters and extra camera backs. 

We learned at one point that the infants would stare right at me for minutes, ignoring their mothers. Hypnotized by a pair of big black eyebrows, they were easier to shoot than the three year olds.


The baby is still staring at me. Her mother notices and I lean forward to say something to her, but the train is suddenly screeching and she just smiles and nods politely pretending to understand what I said. I feel like I am back in New York for a moment, feeling that urge to say something to a stranger, to share a perception, or agree on something. That pithy familiarity, that tender humor I knew in the streets of New York is missing here.
I think of the countless children we photographed, and how there was always a tiny voice in my head that said someday I would have a child, maybe a girl, and she would model these dresses when she was a size three.

The infant is laughing and crying out to me, playing hide and seek behind the hood of her tiny coat. E looks up with her crooked little smile. I slug from the coffee cup, cold and sweet in my mouth. No one eats or drinks on the metro here. I hold the cup like a real New Yorker, with the spout at nine o'clock, turning the cup to sip and turning it back so it does not slosh out.  

At least I can do this.



Comments

Annie said…
What a gorgeous photo. I wish you'd run across my and my 3 year old daughter.

I'd love to see some of those photos.

I do recall that the request for a "to go cup" in Moscow elicited only frowns.

But, as an innocent young thing from "out west" - boy! We knew better than to TALK to anyone in NYC!!!!! Goodness! They'd as soon mug you and leave you for dead as give you the time of day - that's what I was taught!
Mrs. Munchkin said…
So that's what the announcement says?! Thank you for clueing me in, if that's a word?
Marco North said…
Well, Mrs. Munchkin - the day I help expats understand Russian is a funny one. (I am notorious for screwing up with translations). The part that sounds like "bereminem jhenshina" that's pregnant ladies - for sure.

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