23 March 2015

tiny dancer (a hall of mirrors)

It happened quite gently. N stood up from our bed in the middle of the night and said something. I trailed her to the bathroom, the floor slick under my feet. She was already calling her sister. It was time. 

There was a series of hallways. A big room we waited in, her with the monitor strapped around her. Everything was shared in hushed fragments, words dropped, faces nodding. A nurse turned the main lights off and I watched her in the bed, just one light behind her like she was in an opera. I held her hand, sat in an awkward wobbly chair and closed my eyes for a few minutes.

The sun had come up, and I listened to the sounds of women wailing, shouting, swearing unspeakable things. Their voices echoed down the corridors to us. And then there was a silence. Just as the light of morning inched across a door, our child was coming into this world.

There were clusters of doctors and nurses, white tile walls. I stood out of the way but as close as I could. N was not scared, I think concentrating on some imaginary dot on the ceiling. I studied her face, upside-down, luminous under the fluorescents. This was the day we had imagined so long ago, a day we prayed for, wished for, planned for. I watched her, as if pushing a mountain a few feet might be effortless today.

And then V was crying out, arms flailing. I imagined every kick she had made inside, me feeling the skin on N's belly late at night. This is our tiny dancer, I always said. Her voice was strong. Wrapped tight in blankets, I was holding her already, her eyes rolling around, red cheeks like plums, a soft blanket of hair on her head like the most delicate moss. 

We were lead to another room. V felt so light in my hands and at the same time, the same as E ten years ago. That identical feeling of relief, the smell of mucus and blood and the throaty cry all twisted down a hall of mirrors, ricocheting back to me. That sense of E hearing my voice, me singing to her in those first minutes and now doing the same with V singing the very same song, but me such a different person, me halfway across the world, somehow with N, somehow living by trees and grass, somehow breathing in this air, all of it feeling impossible, all feeling so precarious as every note wobbled out of my mouth, with those big blue grey eyes looking at me, the fear fading from them, the cry winding down, the lips pursed, and the understanding that you are mine and I am yours.










16 March 2015

no post this week

for the first time in years, I am not going to be able to post this week, but be sure to check in next monday - it should be a very special one.

09 March 2015

the disappearance of imaginary messages

On most days the sidewalks are a lumpy sheet of ice. I have gotten good at tiptoeing across them, sliding, skidding but not falling. E grips my hand as tight as she can and we make our way. I stopped realizing this high wire act has been going on for eight years now. They say you do two years in prison, the day you go in and the day you come out. I think I know something about what that means now.

There was a time when I spent every day forcing my will, imagining an invisible page turning, a phone call, a message and us on a plane the next day. Each day I whittled away at this fantasy, refining it, crafting the language of the message, each time more terse, more empty, more blunt. I know it was spring when I felt this way, maybe three years ago. I was counting the days until our release, based on absolutely nothing but desire.

I wondered if we should empty the fridge, because we would be gone soon. Did E really need new school clothing if we were leaving? Did we need a five pound bag of rice, or a small package? Surely the news would arrive any minute at this point. The words repeated in my head, rolling around like those circus motorcycle acts in their steel cages. 





At one point, I could hardly walk alone in the street without wanting to cry out.

Something snapped.
I smelled ozone and burning diesel the entire night.
The imaginary message disappeared the next day.

Within a week the ideas evaporated completely. There was no defeat, no surrender, no admission. They was simply a light that turned off. The wires were ripped from the wall, the breakers demolished and the door hammered shut. If that room was going to be opened again, it would need to be though the window, climbing in from the balcony.





02 March 2015

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.


23 February 2015

a dress rehearsal (landscape of a man, part 2)


When the air runs warm and the snow starts to melt, it is no surprise that I feel restless. If I had long hair, I might walk into a barber shop and ask to cut them everything off like I used to. The streets are crusted with dog shit long hidden in snow banks. Children wander towards playgrounds still wrapped head to toe. They will be in snowsuits until the trees turn green. 

I wake in the middle of the night, listen to N's breathing and then go to the kitchen for a glass of water. I check on E, curled like a fern on top of her blankets, a hand stretched out to some imaginary friend. A shovel rakes against the sidewalk downstairs. I am not the only one up.


Is this a belated mid-life crisis? I ask myself on some days, this fresh urge to create, to be prolific, to follow my muse wherever it takes me with a sort of reckless urgency. Or, did I simply hit a sweet spot? Did I make some soup, did I cook up an alignment of planets, did I keep the motor running all these years and finally it feels like new destinations are just around the next corner? I have no idea. I make dinner. I try to make the bed. I try to find things in boxes that I have misplaced. I try to put my teacup in the sink.

And then the snow returns. This was a dress-rehearsal for Spring. The flakes are flapping against the windows.














09 February 2015

ten second romances


The metro is oddly quiet, even as throngs of people squash past each other. As usual, I think of penguins while the crowd takes tiny steps, funneling into the escalators. The metro photographs well, all Soviet retro glam and decadence but no one ever looks up, or marvels at the chandeliers. Faces down, staring at phones or eyes simply closed. No flirting glances at the faces on the escalator going up, no ten second romances.

I have begun to feel more than the typical winter emptiness. The city is especially barren, more gray, more muddy, more defeated. Everyone I stand next to smells like stale cigarettes. I think of some Washington blowhard who described Russia as "a gas station pretending to be a country". Of course, this is just an underhanded insult, a cheap shot made from a distance. Today, I think Moscow is a forgotten ashtray, crammed full of cigarettes burned down to the filter, some with lipstick, some stained yellow, crammed into an ancient bit of cheap crystal, heavy, filthy, sitting in the middle of a kitchen table.



I have a voice record session in an hour and a half, so I find a quiet place to have some breakfast. They have eggs, but I am trying to remember how to say I want them scrambled. I say "kak omlet" and the waiter thinks I want to order an omelette. No, I shake my head, making a stirring pattern with two fingers. "Tolka dva yaitsom" (just two eggs) I say, and he nods and says a word, maybe something like "meshayetsom" but I am just guessing. I shrug my shoulders, he wanders off.

The papers are pulled from my Ghurka.

I was looking for my fountain pen in the morning before I took Eva to school, half-laughing and half-sad that it was taking me so long to find it. "And you call yourself a writer." I said out loud, trying to squeeze some humor out of the moment. Drawers swung open, envelopes and ink pots, momentos and credit cards rattling around.

The pen is light in my hand. I think of that day in Florence when N bought it for me every time I use it. The pages stare back up at me, waiting for the final section of the final story to unfold. The work begins as always, a meditation, a brutal act of revision, a note about something missing, the need for connective tissue where the story disintegrates. A voice creeps up the back of my neck. "This is the best thing you have ever done." It tells me and I shrug it off. I don't like this voice because it must be wrong, or exaggerating. I must be capable of better than this, I tell myself, but first I have to finish this. But this book has no name. I have flirted with so many, making midnight calls to old friends saying "maybe this one" and they say "sure, that could work, that could be great, that could be a wonderful name". And I wake up the next day and the name sounds ridiculous to me, desperate, cheap, shallow. And then a few days later the same name sounds fine, but unassuming, lukewarm, forgettable.

The last story is about many things. One of them is a little boy. I remember a piece of his dialogue that I cut, noticing the phantom space where it used to be. The phrase is one he blurts out, angry, confused, proud. The tiny voice on the back of my neck says this should be the name of the book. I let the pen rest for a moment.

The food comes out. The eggs are scrambled.

I eat quickly, wondering if this new name works, if this title will end like all of the others, with a combination of shame and regret. I write it on an empty page of my notebook, as an official reminder of the moment.

After the record session I call N and tell her the name. She says it is worth considering. She has learned to manage my excited calls from the street with a cool grace. She steadies the boat.
The sun is coming out just a little and the streets are wet. I yank my hat off, feeling the air on my skin. The people all look as sad as ever, shoving down the sidewalks, thwacking their boots in the slush as they climb old broken stairs.

I see a stray dog in an empty lot. He looks up at me, with big wet eyes.
"Hey." I say to him, my voice sounding unfamiliar.
He noses the air, wondering if I have some food for him.
"Papa on the Moon." I call out to him.
He dips his chin, crosses one foot over the other.