24 November 2014

the in-between moment



E's new snow pants make whisking sounds in the darkness as we walk the few blocks to the marshrutka stop. These little buses weave through the lesser known parts of the city on marshrut (routes), connecting old women and men without cars to metro stations. They do not charge me for E most of the time. Some drivers look eternally angry, miserable. One smiles at us, even says "dobrei utram" (good morning) and the more familiar goodbye "shastliva" (happiness).

Today she slumps against me once we are inside, cheek against my arm. Often the lights are bright, like an arena inside the little bus but today they are dimmed. I do not have to pull my hat down over my eyes to drift halfway back asleep for the fifteen minutes it takes.

Outside, Kievskaya stands cold and grey. The shopping center is buzzing with colored neon and giant blinking commercials on screens, all shouting for attention with the sound turned off. The ground is crisp from last night's frost. It crunches quietly under our boots. People are smoking cigarettes everywhere, sucking hard before going inside to work.

The streetlights are blinking off just as the sky is just starting to move towards dawn. This is the in-between moment, not here not there, not asleep not awake, not at school not at home. There are no pickle jars full of cigarette butts falling from balconies. There are no people pulling cars fast around corners to jump away from. The streetlights are working. The fountains are off, their empty bottoms littered with dry leaves.

Winter is here, but not here.

The news channels scream stories that are meant to sow fear, each headline more convincing than the next. There are wars going on. Soldiers are coming home in body bags. Somehow, life seems exactly the same. Old women shove at each other at a farmer's market on a Sunday afternoon. One says she was next in line to buy a cheap pumpkin. Another says, "No I am next". The first says "You c*nt! I am next." Then there is a swatting of hands, even some kicking. All over who is next on a warm Sunday afternoon, safe and quiet under tall trees.

I will never understand what motivates people here to get angry at one moment, and what brings them to swallow their feelings at another. Wrong is wrong.

I head home, alone on the marshrutka not closing my eyes, watching the river and the bridges swish past the windows. The sky is brighter now, a dull flat nothing.








17 November 2014

rotten eggs (the bad father)

The news came late, more than a day after the accident. We had been breathing air two, maybe three, maybe thirty times more hazardous than we should. Every news source told a different story. Some said it was sulfur dioxide, some said it was styrene, others said it was just smoke. Parts of the city were blanketed in white, blotting out the sun. Other parts looked completely normal and smelled the same as always. We were told, "If you smell something like rotten eggs, close your doors and windows and wear a mask". I want to laugh at the fairy tale help a paper mask will do in moments like this. It is a placebo, a pathetic gesture to make a person think they are better off.

The officials place blame with strong words and empty promises. We all know nothing will happen. This is the charade, the keeping up of appearances while pregnant mothers take walks, grandmothers push strollers, children play on swings with no idea the air is part poison. 



I have had headaches for a week now, walking E to school my nose like a rabbit's, smelling everything I typically ignore. The train station is always heavy with diesel and smoke. The health clinic has an oddly sweet smell, like turpentine and vanilla. Maybe they are refinishing the floors. The hallways of the building smell of fresh spray paint.

E asks me if she can go outside to play in the afternoon and I tell her not for a few days. She nods, not doubting, convinced staying inside will keep her safe.

It has become a dance I know all to well, the steps as familiar as a simple waltz. Listen to the bizarre event, find out if there is anything smart to do and then sit and wait for the sky to clear. There is never anything smart to do, unless we somehow stop needing to breathe. There is just the stink of betrayal, not from Gazprom but a government that offers no compassion for the average person.

These are not good fathers and mothers, these leaders. They do not make sacrifices. They do not put our needs first, or second, or at all. In moments like this, there is nothing good to say but I am still hounded by patriots at every turn, "Stop saying bad things about Russia, you have no right to do that".








10 November 2014

the bridge

There is a walking bridge that crosses the river, all green glass and awkward angles. I remember the first time I was at Kievskaya train station, in a car in the freezing cold at night, the windows half steamed-over. I did not know the river was under the bridge. Somehow I imagined it was the entrance to some tunnel, or a glassed-in conservatory with giant plants in it. There were men with rolling carts, all dented aluminum and wobbly wheels crusted with mud and snow that ferried luggage from the train tracks to the parking lot, cigarettes dangling from lips, warm hats cocked back on their sweaty foreheads. 

People brought packages from places like Moldava wrapped in twine and masking tape to hand out of windows. These were packages from strangers, handed off to strangers. A name, a few words of thanks, maybe a package to return with in exchange. No airmail, no Fedex, no UPS, just faith in a system of human kindness and the reminder to send nothing valuable, just cheese and cookies, fruit, dried fish, maybe some homemade wine. The trains ran deep into the night, ripe with the smell of ozone and diesel, coughing perfect bright clouds in the icy air. 

That was when Moscow seemed romantic, a living museum of salt and vodka, of black bread and strong mustard. That was when prostitutes could be found next to statues of Marx or Lenin, their skirts hiked up to their thighs, their furs old and ratty, heels impossibly tall. Gypsy cabs were manned by drivers with great goofy eyes, often getting lost and talking to themselves like they were auditioning for a cartoon. That was when I was a visitor, more than a tourist, a man that knew ten words (but still spoke in the wrong tense). That was when Moscow seemed unknown, exotic, the stuff of myth, the hallowed ground of great novels, of pain, of suffering, of history itself.




We would pass Kievskaya on the way home when E was four. I did not have enough money to take the metro, so I pushed her in that flimsy pink stroller because she would be asleep by 10 or 11. There was free wifi outside the McDonalds and I would stop in the street, trying to catch it. I wanted something from home, be it the announcement of a friend's birthday, or a new child, maybe some scandal in New York about potholes, maybe something ridiculous.

In those moments, nothing meant more than a tiny, brief connection to home. The leaves could be turning. Someone could be asking for a recipe. Someone could be complaining about a band, or a tv show and it was news I was hungry for. E was wrapped in a warm jacket, and a blanket around her legs, her hands tucked under it. Her nose pink, her head loose and drifting to the right I would check the New York Times and anything else for fifteen minutes until the wifi would turn off or my hands got too cold.

Back in that one room apartment I would pull the coat off of her carefully, turning her into to that tiny bed and she would make quiet smacking noises with her lips until he found her pillow, squeezing it tight against her. It was a lot of late dinners then, boiled beets and potatoes, sliced herring, some mustard, some lemon, some dill, some garlic. It cost less than a dollar a serving.




03 November 2014

(how to finish) The Year of the Horse

The living room is still a forest of boxes, their tops ripped halfway off with socks and t-shirts and documents peeking from inside. The kitchen is empty now, just the little white table is there, the table I used to write on in the old bedroom. Now, it is for dinner, for coffee when people visit, for E to do her homework on. A week here, and somehow it still feels unreal. 

Whenever we pass the old place a sort of phantom shiver passes across my gut. I look out at the river instead. 

This is our home now, and there are avocados ripening on the windowsill. Here is the wobbly door I need to fix soon. Here is the drawer where we decided to keep the needles and thread. Here is a mark on the counter that was already there when we moved in.



I brought a guitar to the kitchen one night, playing under just the light from over the stove my fingers finding the notes in half-darkness. I wonder, and then correct myself. I know there will be new stories written on this white table, new music recorded in the living room with E asleep in the next room. But right now, it all feels suspended, all still lost in those boxes. 

Winter is coming. The days dip into frozen air. The ground is turning hard. I try to imagine warm nights looking down at the treetops, a quiet Sunday morning when everyone is sleeping and I finish that last story in the book, the story that sits near-finished for months now. It is an ending set in New York, a man who does not realize he will soon be on a plane. I need to get him there, but looking out at an empty golf course halfway across the world does not help me. It doesn't stop me either. It is like an empty green piece of paper that will soon be white, then grey, then muddy. 

A great teacher once told me I should finish my books in Spring. He meant it as a vote of confidence, some poetic encouragement as it was Fall when I last saw him. In truth,  I found myself losing faith in other seasons, marking suspicious time until things melted and the crocus bloomed, when the windows could be flung open and I would write long into the middle of the night with my notebooks propped on the radiator like I used to on East First Street. There would be a bottle of Laphroag, or maybe Lagavulin as a reward for at least five pages. 

Now, I have a tall bottle of 25 year old Adego Veha from Portugal on the counter next to the salt and pepper as a daily reminder of the reward I have in store. Paul will find his way uptown somehow, buzzing that door, being ushered into that dark hallway, learning the truth about the woman with the young child. 






27 October 2014

no museums (Fernando)

 

The move happened quickly. There was a long hour standing in the new kitchen, as papers were copied by hand, waiting for passport numbers and signatures. We went from room to room, pasting pink post-it notes to everything we were asking them to take away. There was a decrepit sofa that E said looked like a giant dead monkey. There were cabinets with ceramic families inside them. There were broken tables, and they were all going away to the landlord's country house if we payed to transport them.

I breathed in deep, imagining a room with only our things in it, not stacked on top of books and chairs the landlord had left behind, a sort of Soviet junk museum that they considered gold.

E would have her own room, looking out at trees and a big sky. I would have a kitchen where I did not have to ask anyone to move their chair to open the fridge. N would have fresh air, and closet space. It all felt too perfect, and I waited for the second shoe to drop but somehow it never did.

The day came when the last box was slogged through the front door, and we sat in the chairs that were left. A faint smell of old lady perfume and kasha drifted past us as we opened doors. The tea kettle was unearthed. E skipped from room to room, imagining things I will never know. N sipped from the red cup, her hands wrapped around it as she always does. There are only two red cups left now, and we cannot find replacements for them.




 


We leave early for school, navigating the streets to the little bus that takes us halfway there. In this mashrutka, you pay 30 rubles and hope to get a seat as the driver weaves past the corners like we are in Monte Carlo.

We step into the cool air, and walk the same way to school and arrive 15 minutes early.

E goes behind those familiar doors. I imagine N in bed, her lips pursed, her face curled beneath the covers.

On the way back, it is a different mashrutka, and the driver has the radio on. It is cranking an Abba song.

They were closer now Fernando
Every hour every minute seemed to last eternally
I was so afraid Fernando
We were young and full of life and none of us prepared to die
And I'm not ashamed to say
The roar of guns and cannons almost made me cry


I find myself humming along. The old woman next to me turns her face slowly, studying me. I smile at her, knowing this is a good way to look like I am on drugs, or am "simple" as they say here. She looks at me, offering no reaction. I hum a little louder. She turns away, looking out the window at the sun dancing on the cold asphalt.








20 October 2014

Rocco (please take a moment to vote for us before midnight Oct 22)

A few weeks ago I saw an invitation from Daniel Lanois, asking for filmmakers to create imagery for a handful of his newest songs. The films would be projected during live performances all over the world.

I chose the song Rocco, because it felt like breathing to me, and the concept came quickly. Windows, E' s face...

Today I was told that our film is one of the four selected by the judges, and they are looking for the votes and opinions of everyday people like you to help them understand what film is the best one.

Please visit http://fleshandmachine.com and by all means vote for our film (if you do think it is the best one.)


13 October 2014

normal

A woman sits on a scrap of cardboard on the cold, wet floor. Her head is wrapped in a scarf. A boy, not older than two teeters on short legs, hands stretching out as people pass. His tiny palms are filthy from the dirt and wet grime in this tunnel. I pass them, as I have countless times. She has new shoes. They have Chanel logos on them, and are crusted with rhinestones. The pink of the slippers is barely visible past the tiny sparkles.

She could be in her thirties or she could be barely twenty and I would not know the difference. She appears with different children on random days. It is entirely possible that none of them are hers. There are stories upon stories about gypsies renting children to panhandle with, and there is nothing to suggest they are untrue.

Her shoes are clean under the flickering fluorescent lights. The boy has toys spread across the wobbly stones, a tricycle, a pail, a shovel. It feels more like a messy living room than the way to cross beneath a six-lane street.




When I was a boy, about the same age as E my parents told me about my middle name. I did not know it before then. They also told me I should stop picking my nose. They told me I did not need to carry a dictionary to school every day. Then, they told me I was part gypsy. In truth, this was a fabrication. Maybe it was a bit of creative parenting that backfired. I began climbing on top of my school desk the next day, dancing in circles, spinning wildly as the other children looked on in fear and shock, and then bland encouragement.

I liked the idea of being part gypsy. It felt like a wild vein ran through me, a reckless one, a fierce and mysterious one. If I had some gypsy blood, then I could probably put a curse on someone. I remember thinking that, being the smallest kid in the class. I learned about the evil eye and how you had to be careful. If you used it on someone that was innocent, the eye reflected back on you. Whatever ills you wished on them would actually happen to you instead. I felt great power, and that I needed to use it wisely.

Later in life, I understood it was all fantasy, a joke on a gullible child with an active imagination. I felt less interesting after that, less special.

When I came to Moscow that very first time, there were gypsies on Red Square. Boys ran with no shoes on in the warm sun, blurting a few words of English to me, hands always outstretched. They never walked, always ran. No one was giving them money. The policemen ignored them.