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a peaceful protest

I was 16, and the thought of being forced to mention God as part of the pledge of allegiance was too hypocritical an act for me to play along with. Each day of high school began with this mundane recitation, as most people just stood with their hand jutting from a hip, the other dangling across their chest as they counted out the seconds until they could sit back down. They leaned against desks, and talked through it about what party and where it would be, if there would be a keg or a bonfire in the woods. I recited the words, omitting the "under God" part as a sort of half-baked protest. I was raised to flaunt my family's ramshackle atheism, as a choice of smug pride. We knew better, was the prevailing logic.

But one day, I could not stand and say any of it. It felt so rote, so hollow, so devoid of choice. There was no law that said I was required to say it. I knew this was my right, a form of free speech. My homeroom teacher was a legendary drinker, a trash-talking re…

of cakes and trains

E splashes in the bathtub behind a closed door. I remind her to scrub her neck and behind her ears.
"Okaaaaay." She calls to me in her loud singsong voice.
The cake is almost done, the middle still a bit soft to the touch. The kitchen smells of lemon and polenta and almonds. The windows are open. 
A crossdraft smacks the balcony doors closed. 
"What was that?" E asks.
"Nothing." I tell her. "The wind."
"Oh." She says to herself.
"Finish soon, ok?" I tell her.
"Ok, I am getting oouuuuut." She sings.
"Don't forget to pull the plug so the water goes down." I tell her.
She does not answer.

She brushes her hair in the hallway in front of the mirror, her head cocked to one side. She stares at herself. 
I pack the cake in a bag, gathering pens and pencils and blank paper for her to play with.
"Where is the party?" She asks me.
"N knows." I tell her, pulling on shoes.
I call N to tell her we are on our way and she tells me to wait. 
She will come upstairs and have a coffee first. 


We navigate the streets, turning and staring at signs then driving a bit then stopping to unfold a map. E is quiet in the back seat. I keep hoping she will take a nap. 
The sun is going down, but pushes through the windshield for as long as it can. One hand across my eyes I try to balance the map for N to check when we get to the next red light. 

We find the place and are the first to arrive. 
The apartment is old, a Stalin one as they say with big rooms and tall ceilings. 
E sits on a sofa in the kitchen and amuses herself. I wash my hands and roll up my sleeves, asking what I can do to help.
I dry lettuce leaves.
I organize the wine bottles and open the one we brought, splashing some into a juice cup. Rioja swirls in my mouth, pulling my tongue back, my cheeks in. It needs to breathe.
I chop carrots and celery into sticks, balancing them in piles on a bowl pulled from the cabinets. 
It is a relief to ask what I can do and be told, not be be in charge. 
E is getting bored, asking if any kids are coming. I sit with her and play as guests slowly arrive. The wine tastes better now and for some reason I am not hungry, just ready to sip from the yellow cup and have E slumped against me, with N on my right with her hands dancing in the air as she talks to people. She is crunching on those carrots with tiny bites. 

The conversations struggle in English, half me nodding my head and interrupting in Russian. The party is small, and all in the big kitchen. E is getting bored. At one point the hosts disappear into another room for some time and return with a giant long object wrapped in brown paper. 
"It is for you." One says, giggling and smiling. "Because you are so sweet."
N is embarrassed. E jumps up, all curiosity.
We thrash at the brown paper until a long photograph is exposed. A landscape of rock and ocean and sky. We thank them. There are toasts. 
I refill my glass.


On the way home a train is chugging in the dark, its cars full of sand. I jump in my seat. There is something about trains, something simple that never fails to captivate me.
"Look!" I tell E who is already sleeping and does not wake up.
I watch the cars rattling into the city and plunging into a tunnel, then it is just steel and glass and concrete swishing past us. Nothing new.
I rest my hand on the back of N's head. The photograph is jumping around, balanced across the back seats like a tent over E's head.
"It's fine." I whisper.
N smiles, looking at me for a moment then back to the road.





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