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the white table

The days are not long. The nights are short. Guitars are hiding in cases, with scraps of paper tucked inside. The pen is full. There is a fresh notebook, with creamy pages. The little white desk is in the middle of the living room, a cascade of receipts and laundry perched on it.

I clean it off, have lunch as it stares back at me. This focal point, this fulcrum where my thoughts become real, this cheap folding table from Ikea. It is familiar, and patient.

I'm afraid of Americans

A note: At first glance, the title of this post (a David Bowie song from the album Earthling) might seem like a tribute to him. I think there is no irony in the fact that I wrote all of this last night, well before the news of his death this morning.  I think his influence on millions of people like myself is best represented by innocent acts like this one. In all of its complexity, his art became part of the bedrock of our lives.  

Tomorrow E goes back to school.

I tuck her in, her face cool and quiet as she says goodnight. Her book bag stands by the door. A pair of snow pants are thrown across a chair because it will probably be -20C tomorrow morning when we stumble out into the cold and dark.

Her friends will be there, rested, some suntanned, some with stories about trips to exotic locations during the winter break. She was in Moscow in her pajamas the whole time, curled up in a corner of the couch in her own secret world, eyes rolling at me whenever I asked what she was doing. She talks to her friends all of the time, already a teenager with her fingers skipping against her phone. I cannot remember their names very well, but their faces are clear to me. So many are open and kind, curious, naive. There is the girl who has a big voice. She likes to stomp into rooms like a cartoon. There is a boy who seems to be about to say something and then he stays quiet. There is a girl with funny glasses that make her look like a librarian. There is another girl, with dark skin that I think is the result of a vacation she took in Thailand. When I went to E's christmas play, I was one of a handful of parents in the audience. This girl ran from E, the moment I came near them. She laughed wildly, jumping behind a piano to get away from us. I stood there, my hands turning in the air, my dad sweater suddenly feeling hot.

"What's the deal?" I asked E.
Her face turned to me, quiet. I know this look. She knows I will not like the answer, and we are in public. Her face tells me she hopes I don't swear too loud.

Maybe let it go. We will talk later, in the street but not now.

I hover, take a step back. The school principal is here, a battleship of a woman who has never had eye contact with me even when I am right in front of her. She nudges the children, grabbing shoulders, directing them constantly. The big room is emptying. I stand near E and the girl runs away again.

"She is scared of anyone that speaks English." She says to me, under her breath.
I find this strange as I speak Russian to her friends, in English only when I am talking directly to E.

The girl is laughing, but not a funny laugh but a scared, nervous one. There is something insipid about the situation that creeps into my bones. This girl must have learned this behavior, she could not come up with this on her own. I wonder what language they spoke in Thailand when they were on vacation. The room turns darker. The girl will not stop her little act, acting more and more frightened. She has dug herself a hole, and now she cannot get out of it. The other children think I am silly, amusing. I am E's dad, and I do not shave very much. I cook her strange things that she brings for lunch, which drives some of the children wild with curiosity. She shares little tastes with some of them.

There is an impulse to take E's hand, not say goodbye to her wonderful teacher and get out of this room. I press this away. Let the girl act however she wants. People seem to be ignoring her anyway. We wait it out. Pleasantries are shared. Kind words, faces smiling, nodding, assurances, more smiles and then we go downstairs and find E's jacket.

I think about that girl a few times, and try to shake the sense that this is the beginning of something that will happen more often in Moscow. Being the different one is an old story for me. Before I was a New Yorker, where everyone is different, we lived in a small town when I was a boy. There was one traffic light at one intersection, and our farm was a good 30 minute drive from that. The children were all white, their families good church-going people. I walked fast in the hallways, most probably the residue of being born in Brooklyn, convinced I was about to miss something fantastic if I took my time.

There was an afternoon, when I was in third grade. I was in the bathroom and a few older boys came up to me. They waited until I was done peeing before they said anything, hovering behind me breathing loud.

"You're a Jew, right?" They asked me.
I shrugged my shoulders, having never been to a synagogue.
"I guess so." I answered, calmly.
One of the boys raised his hand and I did not flinch. He ran his fingers along the top of my head. I flushed, confused, waiting for a punch or some swearing.
"Nope." he announced.
"No what?" I asked them.
"You're supposed to have horns." He explained, dryly.
I felt there myself, wondering if he had missed them.
Another boy pulled my hair aside, looking at my scalp. There was nothing angry or cruel about it. They simply wanted to see them, but for some reason they were not there.
"Thanks." The first boy said, and they left.
I often ran my fingers along my hair after that, waiting for them to come.


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