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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…

ten second romances

The metro is oddly quiet, even as throngs of people squash past each other. As usual, I think of penguins while the crowd takes tiny steps, funneling into the escalators. The metro photographs well, all Soviet retro glam and decadence but no one ever looks up, or marvels at the chandeliers. Faces down, staring at phones or eyes simply closed. No flirting glances at the faces on the escalator going up, no ten second romances.

I have begun to feel more than the typical winter emptiness. The city is especially barren, more gray, more muddy, more defeated. Everyone I stand next to smells like stale cigarettes. I think of some Washington blowhard who described Russia as "a gas station pretending to be a country". Of course, this is just an underhanded insult, a cheap shot made from a distance. Today, I think Moscow is a forgotten ashtray, crammed full of cigarettes burned down to the filter, some with lipstick, some stained yellow, crammed into an ancient bit of cheap crystal, heavy, filthy, sitting in the middle of a kitchen table.

I have a voice record session in an hour and a half, so I find a quiet place to have some breakfast. They have eggs, but I am trying to remember how to say I want them scrambled. I say "kak omlet" and the waiter thinks I want to order an omelette. No, I shake my head, making a stirring pattern with two fingers. "Tolka dva yaitsom" (just two eggs) I say, and he nods and says a word, maybe something like "meshayetsom" but I am just guessing. I shrug my shoulders, he wanders off.

The papers are pulled from my Ghurka.

I was looking for my fountain pen in the morning before I took Eva to school, half-laughing and half-sad that it was taking me so long to find it. "And you call yourself a writer." I said out loud, trying to squeeze some humor out of the moment. Drawers swung open, envelopes and ink pots, momentos and credit cards rattling around.

The pen is light in my hand. I think of that day in Florence when N bought it for me every time I use it. The pages stare back up at me, waiting for the final section of the final story to unfold. The work begins as always, a meditation, a brutal act of revision, a note about something missing, the need for connective tissue where the story disintegrates. A voice creeps up the back of my neck. "This is the best thing you have ever done." It tells me and I shrug it off. I don't like this voice because it must be wrong, or exaggerating. I must be capable of better than this, I tell myself, but first I have to finish this. But this book has no name. I have flirted with so many, making midnight calls to old friends saying "maybe this one" and they say "sure, that could work, that could be great, that could be a wonderful name". And I wake up the next day and the name sounds ridiculous to me, desperate, cheap, shallow. And then a few days later the same name sounds fine, but unassuming, lukewarm, forgettable.

The last story is about many things. One of them is a little boy. I remember a piece of his dialogue that I cut, noticing the phantom space where it used to be. The phrase is one he blurts out, angry, confused, proud. The tiny voice on the back of my neck says this should be the name of the book. I let the pen rest for a moment.

The food comes out. The eggs are scrambled.

I eat quickly, wondering if this new name works, if this title will end like all of the others, with a combination of shame and regret. I write it on an empty page of my notebook, as an official reminder of the moment.

After the record session I call N and tell her the name. She says it is worth considering. She has learned to manage my excited calls from the street with a cool grace. She steadies the boat.
The sun is coming out just a little and the streets are wet. I yank my hat off, feeling the air on my skin. The people all look as sad as ever, shoving down the sidewalks, thwacking their boots in the slush as they climb old broken stairs.

I see a stray dog in an empty lot. He looks up at me, with big wet eyes.
"Hey." I say to him, my voice sounding unfamiliar.
He noses the air, wondering if I have some food for him.
"Papa on the Moon." I call out to him.
He dips his chin, crosses one foot over the other.


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