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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 …

Fear and the Ukraine

Walking back from E's school I pass the hotel Ukraine. One of seven sister buildings built by German POWs during World War II, they are classic Soviet structures - menacing, monolithic, each with a red star perched at the top. A thin young man approaches me. I am asked for directions on this stretch of sidewalk almost every day. The White House is just across a bridge to the left, the closest metro hidden behind a park to the right, a gas station lurks on the other side of the hotel. People stop me, their Russian about as bad as mine most of the time, travelers from far off regions looking for a place to have a coffee, or use a bathroom.

I stop, trying to understand what he asks for. Typically I do not stop if it is more than one person. Sometimes, there is safety in less numbers. Then I understand he has something in his small black bag he wants to sell to me. My head is shaking. My hand waves him off in disgust. It has to be something stolen he is trying to unload.
I walk away quickly and he is skipping across the pavement, desperate words tumbling out of him. A few meters later, another man is holding up a cracked tablet PC towards me, trying to sell it too.
I duck into the underpass and put them both behind me.



On the next day, I leave E at school kissing her once on the top of her head through her hat. She disappears behind the doors and I am walking back the same way. The hotel Ukraine is lit up orange and yellow against the bright blue edges of the early morning sky. 

Two young men pass me, hands shoved into pockets. One turns back to look in a single motion. It is the young man from yesterday. His short black hair shines wet under the street light that is still on. The one next to him is shorter. They are in that sort of uniform - cheap jeans with faded patterns, tight leather jackets, low sneakers. The short one looks back over his shoulder, quickly. I look behind me, wondering if some militia are after them. People with black hair get profiled quite easily here, hassled for documents and passports at any given moment, ducked into police cars if they do not have them with them. 
No, no one behind me but the old woman with a face like a potato with her hands out, waiting for loose change in the damp underpass. 

Up the stairs, they both look back and the hair on my neck begins to prickle. They are too nervous.
I chew the inside of my cheeks, trying not to see two men with black hair and assume they are terrorists. I know this is paranoia, from living here too long. Yes, there are bombs that go off in the metro, in the airport, at a quiet random moment just like this. I try to tell myself I am mistaken.
A breeze whips past me.
It is a third young man, who trots up to the other two in front of me. They exchange a few words, hands shoved in pockets, elbows poking out into the wet air.
The third one looks back at me, but not in the eyes.
I wonder what their target could be, and imagine it must be the hotel Ukraine. The White House is across the river, they would have gone a different direction if that was it. 
I pinch myself, stopping my imagination. 
They walk fast, turning down Kutozovsky towards the Porsche dealership I have never seen anyone enter or exit.  

This must be that moment, I tell myself. 
Remember it. This silence, this calm. 

But nothing happens, or nothing is reported. 
Just three nervous young men, an old woman asking for money and me, pressing out fear, pressing out the past, pressing out of the morning into the day.



Comments

liv said…
Just another day in paradise...

BE CAREFUL
Annie said…
I spent my happiest days on earth in the Hotel Ukraine. I'm glad you mentioned it. (I don't suppose I could afford to stay there now, sadly...)+6
Rubye Jack said…
:) I've been to this place. Emotionally.
Your writing is captivating.

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