25 May 2015

I know the way

I thought he would be taller, but as he approaches me on the metro platform I see he is actually shorter than me. His beard is long and wiry. We talk over the rumble of the trains, hands waving, leaning in to catch words. I just keep saying "quiet, simple, everything inside". He nods.

I film him on a bench at the end of the platform. The train arrives, and he does not get on. The train pulls away and he watches it go. It seems so mundane, but through the lens I see the story is working. A man who goes to the metro, and not for the first time, to watch trains coming and going but never getting on. Maybe he sits in the same bench every time. Maybe this is a significant place. 

We will never know.

Next. I shoot him on the escalators with the bright lights sweeping past his face turning it dark, then burning into his pale eyes as he looks into the distance. We chatter back and forth on the way back up, hands dancing in the air. And then we are done, and shake hands and I start home, just before eight on a Sunday morning.

I wonder who all of these people are, packed into the trains on the outskirts of the city so early on a Sunday.


In the mashrutka on the way home a woman clutches a map she has printed. She talks to the handful of other women on the little bus. They are all shaking their heads no. I glimpse the page, hear the word khram (church).

I lean towards the woman and ask where she is going. She says the name of the street  - it is the one we live on. I see the little red x on the page but it shows the church on the opposite side of the big road that leads to our home.
"There are two churches?" I ask the women around me.
I know just one.
They stare at me like flounders, with tiny round eyes on one side of their faces.
"There is one, it is from a famous painting in the museum....with sparrows." I add.
They shrug their shoulders.
The woman with the map stares at me, nervous, wanting to believe me.
"Only the foreigner knows?" She says to them, but mostly to herself.
"Just get out when I do." I tell her.
The mashrutuka lurches down the road, wobbling and leaning hard on the turns. The woman with the map tries to make the GPS in her phone work, but I see it does not. She speaks the address into the phone, nothing. The screen is blank. I raise my hand, trying to get her attention. I show her to close it, not to worry. I think she must be going to the famous little church by us.

I get out and she is like a child, nervous, lost. I wave my hand, telling her to follow me. She does.

Within a few hundred meters I point at the tiny spires behind the trees and her face lights up. I think she did not believe me until just now. She tries to tell me that today is some special day and there will be a procession. I tell her I am going to market for a procession of tomatoes, trying to make a joke but she does not follow me.
"So, you are Catholic?" She asks, completely confused.
I shake my head no, and wish her a good time.
She is smiling and excited as she almost skips down the path to the church in her old stockings and fake leather skirt.




18 May 2015

not a doctor

Most of the day was spent outside myself, goosebumps running up my arms. Faces stared, young men and women smacking at their phones, taking selfies in the giant modern house. It was over an hour drive from the city, all gates and guards and gravel driveways when we finally arrived.

I was whisked into the costume room, where they fitted me for scrubs and then began to iron them. I was given an old shirt to wear in the makeup trailer. A woman with soft, warm hands held my face and looked at me in the mirror. She spoke quietly to herself, and then began. 

I sat in a giant foyer. 
"You really look like a doctor." One girl said to me.

I kept the script next to me, forcing the bizarre UK English that detoured through Russian grammar to come out, trying to remember the awkward phrases. Last night, I had them cold but here in this strange place it was running away from me.

No one spoke much English but I was told there would be two scenes, one with no dialogue and one later one with the page I had auditioned with. I relaxed, watching the small army of people taking off their shoes at the doorway and carrying lights up the stairs, or a clipboard, or a monitor. 



They call me upstairs and it seems there is no scene without dialogue, just the one I have been struggling with. A girl with a fake scar on her back tiptoes in. She is one of the main characters from the show. Her English is ok, and we try to make some small jokes with each other. She has a few kind words for every single member of the crew. And then all at once we run through the scene and I am staring at her, trying to be quiet and gruff and sincere. She acts differently, eyes popping, her whole body going through a series of motions, hands flipping around. But maybe that is her character. I have no idea what the story is outside of this random scene. I ask her who the director is and it turns out he is not even in the room, but downstairs watching a collection of monitors with headphones perched on his forehead. He is nice enough, and speaks not a word of English. The first assistant director tries to help me, her English half a mess. She looks at me a lot, not sure what I am saying.

I bury my chin into my chest, buckle down, try to answer my own questions, try to tell myself I am not a hot mess, not a straw man speaking false words with two cameras hovering near him, not a mannequin next to her, the live wire that somehow has tears running down her cheeks in every single take.

The words completely escape me a few times and I improvise around them. Maybe no one even notices, I tell myself. They shoot from a host of angles, details of buttons pushed, hands, reactions, face turns. My stomach growls, empty.

And then all at once they say thank you and I am lead downstairs where I change back into my jeans and t-shirt, and the car is waiting to take me back to the city. I am starving. The makeup smears onto my sunglasses. I will remember to take it off at home.




11 May 2015

of patriots


There are parades going on now, jets screaming overhead in formation. There are crowds, and military bands, supposedly a new tank on display. But that is in Red Square, and like any wise foreigner I am inside, tucked in a corner far from the center of the city, working on another Russian holiday.

Going for a walk in the late afternoon, we push the stroller hoping V will find sleep for at least an hour or so. There is a forest with a path, dirt lines curving into a thick collection of trees, the occasional bridge over brown water. Normally, this place is marked by old people and children on little scooters. It is a quiet acre where birds and insects flit around.

Today, every hundred feet offers another clump of people crouched around small grills. There are giant clouds of smoke. Some smell good, some smell like jet fuel. The sun is reaching into the forest before it sets. Children wear soldier's hats, with sticks they whack against leaves shouting words I do not hear. There are families, and collections of young people. They look at us as we roll past, with long, blank stares. No small nod of the head, no acknowledgment, no tip of the beer bottle.

There are groups of migrants too, men with black hair and low pointy shoes, squatting on flattened cardboard boxes in small circles. They do not even look, faces to the center, speaking in low voices.

There is one drunk man, shoving and arguing with another less-drunk man. I am trying to take pictures with my Leica, the smoke and the trees are too good to pass up and N is telling me to put the camera away, to follow her, to keep moving.





04 May 2015

the audition


There is a hole in the toe of my sock, but I need to leave already. I might have laughed at it, a private joke but no it is just embarrassing. The taxi is waiting downstairs. E is ready, scarf and hat cocked sideways on her head. She bites her lip once. 

Downstairs, we are driving off as the sun bangs through the little green buds at the tips of the branches. I hope we find the place easily. 

The call came a few days earlier, would I be interested in auditioning for a tv series being shot in Moscow that has some parts for native English speakers? A manager, a teacher, a doctor. They said I might be perfect for it, that I should not hesitate. And then one part that was in Russian, but a foreigner, a joking, finance-dancing foreigner. I spent a few days figuring out the words I did not know, trying not to make them sound comic as they rolled around the inside of my mouth like lime jello, sour and strange. E laughed at me sometimes as she helped me, coaching me through it.

In the car, I am nervous. E raises an eyebrow. She has never seen me scared of anything. I force out some small talk, some stale jokes, and then we fall silent watching the streets pass, twisting under bridges, swishing through red lights and then we are there, or close to there. The numbers on the buildings are always a puzzle, jumping randomly to a new number when you least expect it. Fifteen minutes later, having walking in a two circles we do find the entrance. We are ten minutes early.

The casting director is kind, thin, shy with her English.  She asks if I want water and I pat my bag, telling her I already have some. Of course when I sit down I understand I left it at home. E rolls her eyes once, just for me to see. 

I run the lines one last time, whispered to myself. 

A big man with his shirt stuffed into his pants stalks down the hallway. I wonder if he was the previous audition, for the same parts.

They are ready for me. I thought E might be able to tuck herself in a corner of the room and watch but they are confused about what I ask so she waits in the office. 
"I am with you." She tells me under her breath, as I go down the hall.

The room is big, crammed with furniture in odd groupings. There are lights already set, a big soft chair to sit in. I ask if I can walk and talk, and they tell me no, just sit in the chair. I wonder if that will make things harder. I practiced using my whole body. We read a few lines to find my volume, and I stumble across the English words, like I am drunk and trying to convince a police officer I am not. I see their faces fall, a sort of decision must have been made already I guess.

I do launch into the scripts, doing the English parts first, trying not to rush, trying not to make giant pauses, trying to manage the actions and trying not to try too hard. There is a voice in my head telling me I sound completely fake, like I am reading lines in a fourth grade play. There is a voice in my head telling me that I am actually doing pretty well, that I should have more fun with it. 

I make jokes with the casting director and the camera man, telling them I can only do a New York accent, maybe more Brooklyn sounding after a few whiskeys. They are laughing. It is the end of the day, tomorrow is a holiday. I think they have been doing this all week.  

We finish the English parts and I feel better, buoyant. 

They did not give me the pages for the part that is in Russian. I show them that I have it with me, covered in notes. The casting director tells me, maybe it is too hard for me. I tell her, let's just do a few lines, if it is terrible then they can just send me home.

We run a few lines. Somehow, the Russian does not trip me up. I even get the slang word right. 

There is a quiet moment. I slump into the big, soft chair. The casting director turns to the camera man.
"You are already the best today." He tells me, finding the words in English.
"Let's try." The casting director tells me.

We go at it. I dance across the words, almost remembering what all of them mean, suddenly telling myself it just needs to sound rough and mysterious and a little like I am joking around. Then I get lost, completely lost in the script, forgetting the name of my part, staring at the page as if it was not in my hands for the past three days. Then I do see the line they are whispering to me. "Ya ponimayu" (I understand). The irony is not lost.

We make it to the end. I punch the last lines suddenly sounding like a foreign mafioso. Maybe it is too far. 

They ask me to do it again, in close-up. I do, and make it all the way through without hesitating this time. 

And then they say thank you, and we are walking down the hall and I stumble right into a junction box jutting out from the wall and my shoulder hurts like hell but I wave my hands around and laugh a little and E is looking at the doorway because she heard my voice in the hall. We say goodbye, walk the wrong way all the way down the hall and a security guard is already waving at us, already there to tell us to turn around and go the other way.

Outside, I call N. The baby is crying, and she can hardly hear me, but she hears something in my voice, something peaceful. We are coming home now.

Waiting for the taxi, a Porsche pulls up and a man jumps out, stubble on his cheeks, cool glasses, tight jeans. He eyes me, sees my black sunglasses, the red shoes on my feet. I imagine he is auditioning next, and he sees I am his competition, and then I tell myself that must be wrong. 

At home, I pull of those red shoes and there is that hole again, in my purple socks. I think of the fear I had a few hours before, and how it has been teased out, transformed into an sense of relief. 







27 April 2015

brother, brother

The mashrutka is full, just one spot left in the very back. E drags her feet down the narrow aisle. I ask the man in the last double seat to move a little so she can sit down. She slides past him into the empty window seat, and I rest her mammoth school bag on the floor. The man flicks his head back and forth, inspecting us. I nod once to E, a reassuring look as I stand in the aisle and get ready to balance myself for the bumpy ride. She does not like to sit next to strangers. I shrug my shoulders. She forces a little smile, as if we are saying "what to do?". Nothing, just go home.

The man decides to give me the seat and I tell him it is not necessary. He flashes a mouth full of lumpy gold teeth, his eyes bloodshot. He is standing next to me in the tiny aisle and there is no space for both of us so I sit down. E makes a little sigh, and nudges her knee next to mine.

The man asks me where I am from. I decide to tell him the truth. Sometimes I say Canada to make things easier. 

He breathes right into my face, his breath a terrifying combination of raw onion, and liver and vodka. Words are tumbling from his mouth. I ask E is she understands him and she says, "that's not Russian" to me.

I try to guess what he says out of context. I think he is telling me about how his friends work in Germany for a few months without a visa and then come back to Moscow and wants to know if that is possible in America. I tell him things are very correct there, that visas are hard to get. He nods, and suddenly he is slapping his hands on my shoulder like my jacket is a little snare drum.

"Brat, Brat." He says. (brother, brother).

People on the little bus are craning their necks around. He is Uzbek, an immigrant, quite possibly an illegal one. These men with black hair, they sweep the streets, they dream of driving taxis, living 10 or 15 to one room, sending money home for their families. 

His face looms inches from mine as the bus jolts around on potholes and speed bumps. He is trying to tell me something about his home now, about how it has mountains and beautiful nature. He asks me again how he can go to America and how it must be so great there. I try to tell him no place is perfect, but he does not understand me. I try to tell him his home must be wonderful. 

He drums against my jacket again, running out of things to say just repeating "brat, brat" over and over. I finally begin to feel uncomfortable, long after the people around us are shrugging their shoulders and whispering to each other. Saying I am his brother is too far a stretch, a fabrication, a lie. It could be true, but it is not. 










20 April 2015

sometimes I feel like a motherless child

Sometimes she throws her arms wide, like Atlas. She carries nothing in her hands but the air between us, her eyes growing brighter each day as they change. In these moments, her face a locked stare, hands stretched all the way to those minuscule fingertips, I think of everything that weighs on me, everything that turns me in my sleep. I remember the lesson (not sure where it was learned) to be bigger then the events of the day, to wrap my arms around the pain, the sadness and disappointment, to be bigger than everything that washes across my little family. 




E has been especially kind to me lately. In my dark afternoons she rests a hand on my shoulder, or a cheek against my arm. 
"Don't worry, Pop." She says in a low voice. 
I feel suddenly weak, when she witnesses anger, when she sees me yelling at cars that nearly run us over as I jab fingers in the air at the crossing sign they ignored, as I swear a hairy rope of Brooklyn curses on their shiny black sedans as I wave once again at the crosswalk sign, the lines painted across the tiny road and then suddenly the face behind the windshield relenting, hands in the air apologizing, even a thumbs up for some bizarre reason. I am shaking, as we walk off towards the playground and home. E looks up at me. She worries about me, I know it. 

People like to pretend Moscow is a safe place, that it is a normal city. I have been told by so many that I should love Moscow like a good Mother and everything will go easily for me. But this relationship never unfolds, even when I open my arms to it. Not every mother wants her child, I would tell them. 

I have fallen for many cities besides New York. New Orleans, Rome, Lisbon, Bologna all hold places in my heart. There people asked me directions in the street, as if I had lived there my whole life. I turned corners on secret bakeries, on wobbly tables and good wine, on an osteria that mended a young broken heart with homemade bresaola. There was a bench with a cat painted on it there, a loyal pet that may have lived once and remains familiar this way. 

I think of that black cat sometimes when I sit down to write, as if it watches me, curious about what is on the fresh set of pages, what notes are scribbled in various notebooks, what will happen to the young boy who walked off into the woods, and what will happen to the man in the city who doesn't want to go home to an empty apartment, and what will happen to the old divorced man who sets fires in his backyard, and what will happen to the woman passed out in the grass covered in vomit. 





13 April 2015

howl

Late on a Sunday night a wind whips through the city. Limbs thwack against the windows of the balcony. They say more than thirty trees were uprooted in the last week. I imagine green buds on branches dropping to the dry earth below. The baby sleeps. N is turned half on her side, her glasses still on, her eyes closed. I pull the bedroom door closed very slowly, turning the handle so it does not squeak. 

There are voices from next door, traveling through the walls, passing around the windows maybe the wind helping them reach us. Between the howls and the curtains flipping around I hear a woman. She is crying out. She is wailing about her life, her disappointment. I hear something slapping against the wall in-between our apartments, hoping it is just her hand. E runs to the kitchen. I ask if she can understand what the argument is about. A man's voice reaches us next, completely calm, in low rumbling sentences. E shakes her head no. 

The woman is shrieking. There are electric silences between the sounds she produces. I wiggle my head, suggesting we go to the living room. E is nervous. We go through her school bag, making sure she has everything for tomorrow. She gets into bed and I throw the top blanket out in the air, and it floats evenly across her. She smiles up at me. I am glad she does not remember all of the screaming when she was a baby, or that it feels so foreign to her now. There was a time when we were those neighbors. 

E finds sleep. I wander the rooms, now cracking the door seeing the humidifier pumping out a consistent cloud in the bedroom, N in the same position, V on her stomach, hands curled. The fight continues next door. I guess the woman is talking to her mother now. 

The wind howls. 

I see someone with a tiny dog downstairs. They are running in the darkness.