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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…

small change (exceptions)


There are two buildings that rise up in the distance, when I go towards the hardware store. I imagine a modern-day Rapunzel might live in one of them. The sky is packed with clouds, but a strange one hovers above one of the towers, a lonely mushroom, a cloud fedora, a sore thumb.

There is a store here, Pyaterochka. The name brings to mind a little bird, maybe a sparrow. I used to go to a Pyaterochka that had little birds that flew around inside it, but it actually means "5", taken from the Russian word "pyat". In "little five" people wander the aisles, counting out rubles, with bags of potatoes, maybe a box of wine. I find myself scouring the neighborhood from time to time, looking for a special type of milk for V. It comes in tiny purple boxes, and appears as randomly and sparingly as butterflies. Today, I am in Pyaterochka and there are a few boxes. I check the expiration dates on them. Stores here will sell expired milk and meat without batting an eye.

The line to the register is a clumsy, lurching mess of road workers with tiny bottles of vodka and fat bags of sausages, a pregnant woman chattering on her phone, and old people. I inch forwards, with those purple boxes balanced on my hands. The cashier is fascinating. She has bleached blond hair, pulled up high and tight into a ponytail. There is a brutal red slick of lipstick painted across her face that goes way beyond where her lips end. Her eyes are small, darting at faces, her words sharp and quick. She plunks change down, opens plastic bags with an angry flourish. On her hands, are white leather gloves with the fingers cut off. There is something oddly trash and vaudeville about her. I could see her on the street in the East Village as easily as this backwards corner of the universe. The line slogs along. I wonder if I have small bills with me. Somehow I want to be on her good side. Slapping a thousand ruble bill on the counter when you are buying 150 rubles worth of milk is a major insult to the culture of cashiers here. They hoard small bills like the world will soon unravel into chaos without them. Or, there is a massive shortage of small change. Anything is possible here. Anything.

I arrive, and she stares at me saying nothing. The red lips move, as she says something to herself. The ponytail bounces around, as wisps of broken hair dance behind it. The fingers poking from those white leather gloves have giant nails on them, carefully painted in glittery swirls. I pay with a pair of hundred ruble bills.

Out in the street, I look up at the odd little cloud, the exception. It is still there.

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