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Breathing the right air

Nothing brings more comfort than a bag of good things to cook, swinging under your arm as you make your way home. Somehow it blots out the rest of the world. In these moments, the entire universe consists of a late afternoon sun, a stray dog and a clump of flowers growing strange and wild in a yard. A hit of basil jumps from my elbows with each swing of the bag, a gift from one of the ladies I buy from the most. I visit markets without intention, just eyes open ready to discover fresh peas, or the first corn. Knowing that these products will disappear as quickly as they present themselves creates a certain form of excitement. Each season offers up this rhythm and without it I might become completely lost.

I think of when we were in Tuscany a month ago, feeling like such a tourist until I wandered out along the highway and found the local vegetable stand. I shoved squash blossoms and tiny tomatoes into a bag, rushing back to our room like I had robbed a bank. I made pasta with them th…

prelude to an early winter



The air hovering above the sidewalk is a damp pillow. It spreads, dividing at the corner, brushed sideways by the wind of a passing taxi. The city is not dense with chatter yet, and I can jaywalk towards Spring and Crosby with my hands in my pockets. I smell sidewalk soap, ammonia and lemon. Someone is flipping chairs to the floor, the restaurant still dark inside. The dog walkers are out, with a coffee in one hand.

I have friends here.
N and E and myself are known, followed, noted, even celebrated in this place. There are wishes being made, toasts, conversations in low voices with heads shaking in disbelief. There are gifts and cards to cram into suitcases and go home with. A series of impossible events have been sewn into fabric with steel thread, a collection of battles and triumphs, the everyday brought to the edge of some kind of Shangri-La.


We walk everywhere, eavesdropping on the conversations in the street. They are not private, more a series of announcements about what mascara is better, why one place makes coffee that is too hot and how to avoid this. For the first time, I am put off by the minutiae, the detailed obsessions that border on compulsion. In Moscow, I hear other expats waxing on about how the Americans back home are coddled, insulated and vulnerable.

I do hear a lot of exaggeration here about thorns that are not really thorns stuck in a lion's paw.

I start to resent them, jealous of the innocent dramas they retell to friends on phones boasting long and loud in the street. I want to laugh it off, then joke about how tragic a badly prepared martini can be, how inexcusable an overcooked duck breast is. I want to smile, bite my tongue, maybe even interrupt and join the stranger's monologue. I have been away too long. I have seen too much, too many heads ducked into police cars, too many mornings full of post-Soviet bureaucracy, heard too many gunshots, car crashes, the knives brandished, the pistols poking from holsters, machine guns dangling from necks, blood in the street, blood in the metro, explosions in the metro, explosions in the airport.


At Cafe Sabarsky, the air is freezing. I think it is to keep the senior tours from falling asleep after the bratwurst and a glass of good red.

The great room is all tall mirrors and windows. The curves at the corners of the space always comfort me. This is where I used to sit with E in a sling when she was just born, waiting for her to fall asleep before I slid into a booth and forked carefully into my food, going left-handed so she would not be disturbed. She would wake up at some point though, and play next to me with a collection of soft dolls on the plush seat. I wonder if some are in the air vents. She was always losing one or two of them.

I can remember walking into the room almost every Sunday, her tiny hand grasping at my pinky as she slept, about how young and proud I was, clean-shaven and starving.


Tomorrow, we will fly home.
Today, we will take one last looping walk through the city. I have tickets to visit the 9/11 memorial in a few hours. I know for N it is a foreign place, sacred and distant. I can walk past the construction, threading through the crowds of tourists and feel just a tiny shiver, that sense of cutting across the corner of the graveyard.
The idea of a full-on visit past the plastic wrapped chain link fences has me anxious. Of course I want to go, to see, to leave a small stone on the edge out of respect. Living away from this city somehow keeps the wound more fresh. When I return I do not feel older, as if time has stopped while I was away and churns back into motion as I turn the corner. It is not as if I am the center of some time-construct. It is as if a part of me freezes over while I am making a life for us in Moscow.









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