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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 …

losing time


It was a few months ago. The snow came suddenly, just after breakfast with drifts over a foot. The cars were sliding wildly up the hills even with winter tires and four wheel drive. The mashrutka came after a long wait and I wondered if it would make it up the hill. A long line of shiny black cars stood in front of us. E was waiting for me to see her Christmas show. It was the last day of school before winter break. 

I jumped to my feet and asked the driver to let me out, less than a hundred feet from where I had gotten on after 15 minutes passed. The snow was almost to my knees, and I bounded through it suddenly out of breath. Weaving past the cars whirring and skidding with clouds of exhaust around them, I made my way to the main street. The sidewalks were not clean here either. My back was wet with sweat. Old people were standing on corners with the saddest looks on their faces as they looked for the mashrutka. 

All of the way to Mosfilmofskaya, I turned to see the mashrutka churning past me. The one I was just on. 

I would take the trolley bus instead. Big, heavy, it would surely plow through the snow and I would make it to the train station and then I would walk to E's school from there.

The trolley bus did come, and it was so full of people I could not pass the turnstile. I hovered by the front door, next to the driver, a young woman swearing profusely with a small towel on the dashboard that she wiped the windows with then went back to the giant steering wheel. We lurched to the corner and the trolley bus would not turn. The shiny black cars were grinding past us, and there was no way to turn without hitting one of them. She swore and swore. People on the bus were laughing, reading books, staring out the windows. I checked my watch and tried to call E to tell her I was getting closer.

The bus rocked back and forth for some time, as the light turned red then green then red. I saw two more mashrutkas pass the window and throught to get out of the trolley bus and get the next one but that is the kind of thinking that got me here in the first place.

Eventually the bus did turn, and the passengers let out a sarcastic cheer. More people shoved in and I did force my way through the turnstile into the throng of people. As I made my way to the middle of the crowd I understood I would need to get out of the side door to exit by the train station. 
"Excuse me." I said to the people around me, forcing a hand through the crowd to show where I was trying to go. Some leaned to the side, some ignored me. I knew the stop was coming soon, and began to be less polite as I shoved towards the door. A young man shoved me right back and I stared at him, gesturing at the door now speaking in English "come on you motherfucker" and squirming around him instead as the bus did stop and I pushed hard against the doors only to feel a shove against the center of my back that put me face down in the snow as the bus pulled away. My neck hot, I looked up and saw the young man laughing at me. I waved a middle finger at him and shouted "thank you" as sarcastically as I could with snow on my face. 

In the school, I calmed down, not as late as I thought I was. the thing about Moscow is that there is always someone terribly late and no one seems to care. E was in her dress, and I tuned the guitar for her. She played a piece, recited poems, danced with her friends. I stared sometimes at the watch on my wrist, taking in everything that had happened in the last few hours. 

The play ended. The children drank juice and ate cookies. E was given a dancing sheep for the new year. 

The streets were now being plowed, long after lunch time. I imagined the ride home would be uneventful. E pulled on her snow pants, and we strode out into the street. I did not tell her about what had happened. It was too embarrassing. I did not want to start her winter break with another story of disappointment.

On the ride home, the mashrutka was crammed full of people. A man stood next to us, he smelled foul, like burnt rubber and mold. I closed my eyes, pulled my scarf across my mouth and put my head down, waiting to sense the turn onto Mosfilmofskaya. 

A voice shouted at one point for the bus to stop and we did. I heard laughter, a man on the phone talking to someone. 

Walking in the street and going back upstairs I felt relieved. There was a pot of soup to warm, noodles, and strong tea waiting for us. Everything would be better in twenty minutes.

That afternoon I looked at my wrist to check the time and saw my watch was gone. I tried to remember when I had taken it off. I remembered looking at it when we were in school, and waiting for the mashrutka. It was not on my desk, or the kitchen table or in the hallway. Then I remembered the man laughing, and understood that was the exact moment when I had lost it. 



Today I took the old clock on the wall down in the kitchen. It tells terrible time to begin with. Better to see a photograph of children playing than that. I don't want to know what time it is. I want to forget how I lost my watch, the one that sat in my friend's house in Connecticut, and then another friend's office as it missed the chance to get tucked in someone's luggage, someone coming to Moscow. It waited six months for me to came back to New York, to retrieve it and enjoy the weight of it, the snug fit, the red inside of the strap, the clean steel edges. It was not so expensive, and I liked it very much. It was made by a small company in New Zealand. Now my hand feels naked.


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