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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 …

normal

A woman sits on a scrap of cardboard on the cold, wet floor. Her head is wrapped in a scarf. A boy, not older than two teeters on short legs, hands stretching out as people pass. His tiny palms are filthy from the dirt and wet grime in this tunnel. I pass them, as I have countless times. She has new shoes. They have Chanel logos on them, and are crusted with rhinestones. The pink of the slippers is barely visible past the tiny sparkles.

She could be in her thirties or she could be barely twenty and I would not know the difference. She appears with different children on random days. It is entirely possible that none of them are hers. There are stories upon stories about gypsies renting children to panhandle with, and there is nothing to suggest they are untrue.

Her shoes are clean under the flickering fluorescent lights. The boy has toys spread across the wobbly stones, a tricycle, a pail, a shovel. It feels more like a messy living room than the way to cross beneath a six-lane street.




When I was a boy, about the same age as E my parents told me about my middle name. I did not know it before then. They also told me I should stop picking my nose. They told me I did not need to carry a dictionary to school every day. Then, they told me I was part gypsy. In truth, this was a fabrication. Maybe it was a bit of creative parenting that backfired. I began climbing on top of my school desk the next day, dancing in circles, spinning wildly as the other children looked on in fear and shock, and then bland encouragement.

I liked the idea of being part gypsy. It felt like a wild vein ran through me, a reckless one, a fierce and mysterious one. If I had some gypsy blood, then I could probably put a curse on someone. I remember thinking that, being the smallest kid in the class. I learned about the evil eye and how you had to be careful. If you used it on someone that was innocent, the eye reflected back on you. Whatever ills you wished on them would actually happen to you instead. I felt great power, and that I needed to use it wisely.

Later in life, I understood it was all fantasy, a joke on a gullible child with an active imagination. I felt less interesting after that, less special.

When I came to Moscow that very first time, there were gypsies on Red Square. Boys ran with no shoes on in the warm sun, blurting a few words of English to me, hands always outstretched. They never walked, always ran. No one was giving them money. The policemen ignored them.


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