28 July 2014

forget the eggs

On Sunday just before two I turn into the courtyard. A black Mercedes sedan is idling, then rolls lazily past the side gate. The details are all achingly familiar to me - each bench, each dappled path, where to throw out garbage. I feel nothing for this place, no sentimentality, no nostalgia, not even anger or disgust. It is simply where we lived seven years ago, and where E spends some of her Saturday nights. 

It is empty. A blank piece of paper nothing will be written on.

I look up at the balcony but E is not there. Sometimes she waits for me, hand ready to wave when I emerge from the parked cars. She must be packing up her computer, and those new headphones. 

I stand at the outside door, about to buzz and a hand sweeps in front of me. The arm is long and skinny, hairy. It is one of the neighbors. He has a habit of being dramatic like this. He stands in the street in nothing but a bathrobe, the fuzzy belt hanging lose, barely keeping it closed, no shirt underneath. I remember the first time I shared an elevator ride with him, his oily black hair, his giant brown eyes bloodshot and yellowing, his pointy slippers, the way he waited for me to have some eye contact and how he enjoyed that. 

Today he is in rare form, a carton of milk in one hand and a bag of eggs dangling below it. In Russia, egg cartons are some kind of luxury, only for buying eggs in the supermarket. If you buy them close to home, they simply put them in a thin plastic bag. He smiles, half of his giant gold teeth flashing in the hallway. His hips sway. The bathrobe is getting old, and looks like he washed it with the wrong things too many times, mousy now. I wonder if he is stoned. 

And then I understand, he does not remember me. This is the show for first encounters. 

I jab at the button in the elevator for the second floor and get out. I don't need to relive anything else so I take the stairs.









21 July 2014

until everything finds its place

We were not here when the trains derailed last week. Insulated from the dull, nerve-crunching dread of riding the metro after a catastrophe I was half-excused from that familiar heart-skipping moment, when I acknowledge that we ride that same line, that this was just a few stops from our home, that by some bizarre reason I might have been on that train with E. No, this must all be forced out, fears whisked off of my arms like a wet dog shaking itself. These thoughts are inevitable and lead to nothing. I have learned to embrace them quickly as a first step to dismissing them.

We were not here when the plane crashed in Ukraine a few days later. We were working, making a film, making sure the right lights were delivered, that the sound engineer knew what person needed the wireless mic, what camera would be in the front, which one on the side, what frame rate we would shoot at, if the talent wanted their water in a glass or a bottle next to the stage, if it was safe to keep some bags in a back office. We were distracted, squinting in the bright sun in the morning. We knew there was a terrible explanation in store. 

The stories did unfold, the best answers unsurprising. 

I checked the flight route for our return home, staring at arcs that connected cities, imagining the thousands of people that travelled along these slim lines today, all holding their breath in some way, believing they are the lucky ones, the ones that will be passed over, the ones that will land and jab at cel phones and check emails and look for the last wobbly cart for their luggage, the ones that will stand in the hot sun looking for their taxi. I am one of these people, yanking luggage into the trunk, calling E saying we will pick her up in maybe 30 minutes if there is no traffic.

The driver asks us if he can stop for a moment, that he has needed a bathroom for three hours now. Kanyeshna (of course) we tell him and he pulls into a gas station, trotting towards the back of the place. I stare at the clouds in the sky. N squeezes my hand once. 


The next day we have tickets to a concert. 

E is wearing the black, Converse hi-tops we got her. She paces back and forth in front of the mirror, seeing how they look coming and going. We drive into the late afternoon, finding cars parked illegally on lawns, half-hanging off of curbs. We circle the neighborhood for half an hour until we find a lot. N begs the woman at the window to let us in. For some reason we are not allowed, even if there are spaces. The woman finally says space 58 and we park. N has to give her name, her license plate number. The woman tells her it will be 150 rubles, N gives her a 500 and tells her to keep the change but the woman waves her hands, refusing, almost angry. She does not want a bribe.
"I think there are cameras on her." I whisper when we are a few steps away. 
"Maybe." N offers.

The sun is low in the sky. There are tents with vegan food, gummy churros, bland pizza, long lines of people waiting for burgers, smoke billowing around grills smelling of burning fat and kerosene. I suddenly am not hungry. 

We make our way to the main stage, finding an empty spot of grass for our blanket. E sits cross-legged. N leans back against me. Jamiroquai will be on in about twenty minutes. I close my eyes, taking a deep breath. When I open them, I see a collection of orange balloons floating off into the sky. E points at them, and I nod. 
The grass around us fills with people smoking from hookas. There are no security guards, just the random no smoking sign. The giant lawn is choked with people. There is a path that is now full of them so people weave their way through the crowd, all forcing towards the front of the stage. They step on my hands as they pass, on E's feet. The sun is dipping behind the trees. A woman in a yellow dress and heels with a young boy plants a towel on the ground in front of us. Another woman is with them. The boy flops onto his back, turning a frisbee slowly in his hands. The woman are all laughs and sunglasses perched on their hairdos. We wait for the music to start, as the sound check ambles along. 

And then, all at once the crowd surges around us, more and more people pushing in all directions. I crane my neck. We will need to stand at this point to see anything, even the giant screens on the sides of the stage. There are no security guards here, I tell myself again. The music starts, the band sounding fine but I notice there are no horns, that the solos are all played by a guy on a keyboard. E frowns, takes one of her deep sighs and lets it out. Maybe this will all settle down, I tell myself. Maybe things just need to bump around until everything finds its place. 

The woman in the yellow dress is whooping and clapping, wiggling around with her arms in the air. I see she does not have a wedding ring. The boy is completely bored, his toes wiggling in his sandals in the shadows of the grass. 

N looks back at me, her chin sinking into my arm.
"It really isn't safe here." I tell her quietly.
"I know." She answers.
"This could get nutty in a minute." I add.
We all stand, as people tromp past us, as they snap pictures and clap, as they smoke and smile, as they wave at friends to find them. I wonder why we are so different, why we are so acutely aware of the chaos. The boy with the frisbee is getting stepped on. The woman in the yellow dress leans down, offering her phone to him to play with. I start to feel contempt for her, with her forced smile in the pictures her friend snaps of the two of them, of her heels digging into the dirt, of the sunglasses perched on her head. Then I just tell myself she is a desperate divorcee, that I have no idea how much she dreamt of this messy evening with Jamiroquai on stage a few hundred feet from her, how maybe this is the highlight of her summer, a day she will cherish.

"Let's go after this song." N says to me.
The music chugs along. He is good. He works the crowd, he has his moves. 

Threading back out, the air starts to clear. We wander the park trying to remember what exit we used to come in. As we find it, there are hordes of men in uniforms, some with dogs. They stand in circles smoking cigarettes, in an empty field close to the exit.





14 July 2014

the witness


Irakli turns onto a gravel road, the tires crunching past an old tractor, some yellow dogs barking against their chains, and then stops at a field overgrown with wildflowers. There are daisies and clusters of Queen Anne's Lace, little purple ones and even smaller yellow ones. He walks along the edge of the field. This is his land and someday the view that looks out at mountains and rolls down the hill will be from a back porch. His children will run through this grass, smelling the sweet air, feeling the rain on their faces. There are trees he has planted that already give fruit, handfuls of undersized apples and some cherries.

N is making a bouquet, her face just above the earth. She is smiling that Mona Lisa smile, her hair caught behind her ears.

I wander back down the road. There is no such thing as an old tractor I can resist. Their faded red paint and mud-caked tires are something that must be noted, standing witness by the side of the road. An old woman tiptoes across the gravel, her face tanned, the skin hanging loose from her arms. She crosses a wire fence into a yard and a big black turkey bounds from the shadows of a tree to greet her. She shouts, slapping at it, then feeds what I see are a cluster of baby ones in the tall grass. The big one keeps approaching and she speaks to him like a person, swatting at his head when he gets too close. Standing at the closest fence post, the Leica is small in my hands as I stand without breathing, waiting for the turkey to turn so his head will make a silhouette in the tall grass. I click once, without thought. They do not see me, so I will try for a few more. I am always surprised by how one situation offers people who see me from a mile away, their eyes burning into me, and how I can be invisible a few yards away from another person in a place as quiet and empty as this.


She sits in the shadows of a tree now, the turkey next to her as she pats his head and holds long conversations with him. I think of the market we walked through the day before. The streets were hot and full of dust. A gypsy girl no older than six was carrying an infant wrapped in some old cloth, begging from the black Mercedes sedans that passed. Motorcycles scream past us, mufflers removed or customized to make them sound like fighter jets. I pull the Leica close to my side, turning the lens against me so it does not get full of dust. The market will close soon and there is a smell that runs up to us, of animal blood and rotting fruit, of cheese going sour. I walk ahead, passing faces that are exhausted, men covered in stubble, women with mascara running down their cheeks. Eyes are bloodshot, cheeks painted with white wrinkles and suntans. They all follow my movements, even if the camera comes up to my hip, they bristle in expectation. I feel like I am in the Georgian counterpart to a Fellini casting session for a prison film. The men look dangerous. The women have sharp tongues. There are knifes sitting on stools to cut the fruit open, for buyers to taste sulguni cheese or a piece of dried fruit leather. They shine, dull and silver in the hot sun and I begin to understand I cannot take any pictures here.

A tall young woman in hot pants stalks past us. I see a bruise under one eye behind her mirrored sunglasses. Crossing the street to the other half of the market, I pass close to the faces, the hard hands, the smell of desperation thick around us.

There is a second floor in the concrete building, maybe a parking garage on another day. There are no people here. Even the neat piles of fruit are alone in the silence, just the sun edging in strange long shapes across the grey floor. A giant tank of trout stands blue, the fish swarming, wet and slick.



07 July 2014

Someplace in Mexico (Buddha on the water)




It takes some time for the irony to sink in, that she wants to crawl into a six foot plastic bubble and roll around, buoyed in this water tank on the outskirts of the city. The giant balls are tethered to the launch area. The man who runs the place does not get paid with carnival tickets, just money in his hand. $6 for something like five minutes and I can pay extra to keep her inside when the time is up, depending on how many people are waiting. 

She sits in there, her pants suddenly too tiny, rocking back and forth pretending she is a tiny Buddha on the water. The other children are doing flips, running like gerbils inside their balls. I take pictures, yelling above the din of the crowd that she should do something but she smiles at me instead. 
“That was amazing.’ She announces, emerging after two extra-long turns inside on wobbly legs.
The man smiles at me, nodding.
I tell him he has a great job, that he makes a lot of people very happy. He agrees, offering more smiles and giant cartoon head nods. 


And then we are not there in the water tank universe any more. We are in Moscow, the city she has not left for more than seven years now. 

Walking in the street, we discuss me the places I will take her someday, in order of importance.
     New York
      New Orleans
      Rome
      Someplace in Mexico
      Maybe Puerto Rico
      Someplace in Spain
      A lot of places in Italy, like Bologna
      Not the desert
      Coney Island
      Paris or Portugal
      Maybe Australia







30 June 2014

lost in the supermarket (the lazy anarchist)

Auchan. For years I had no idea it was a French company, impossible to imagine this mashup of Costco and Walmart that dots the outskirts of Moscow is a foreign project. Some Auchan stores are so big the workers wear rollerskates to get price checks.  

Saturday afternoon is the only window of opportunity for us and we are two of the ants swarming around the handfuls of shopping carts as they ferry in, dripping wet from the parking lot. I wait my turn, watching some new chain get unlocked as each person pulls one from the fresh line that has arrived. I am next. The chain will not swing open. I yank harder and N stops me. I need a ten ruble coin to slide inside it. I go into an immediate fury, as I just used up my ten ruble coins in the last store and would have saved them. She digs into her purse. The line behind us bristles with grumbling, urgent faces. She finds one and shows me how to put it in the cart handle. 
"And how do we get it back?" I ask her.
"When you leave the checkout." She explains.
"So then we have to carry the bags all of the way to the car." I say in a loud voice.
"You can keep them in the cart and not get the money back." She tells me. "Or, we can roll them to the car and then you can bring the empty cart all of the way back here and get it."
I could care less about the ten rubles, although it reminds me of paying two rubles to use a bathroom. It is more the principle of inconvenience, the petty gesture, the scrambling for pennies that disturbs me, the assumption that everyone wants to steal one of these wobbly, lopsided carts.

N disappears with her list, filling the cart with detergent and soap, with glass cleaner and steel wool. I wander into the store, the glazed faces swarming around me. The air is always desperate here. Fresh corn cannot be placed in bags. It is shoved instead, arms thwacking against each other while people fight as if everything is about to run out and they will get the last succulent piece. There are couples, one pushing dutifully, the second doing all of the decision making. There are single women, with mousy hair and faces lowered, with just a basket swinging from their elbow. They are shopping for small bargains. There is a smell of spoiled fish wafting down the narrow aisles as I make my way towards the wine shelves. People stand in front of the bargain bottles, reading the fine print on labels with mock-serious faces. There are boxes of rosé. There are rows of Russian champagne, which is truly some sort of sugary malt liquor with artificial fruit flavors in it. Champale, like we used to buy in high school for three dollars. Knowing the place is owned by the French now, the irony digs in as faces whip past me. I stare at the middle-priced bottles, wondering if they are all fake. They come from vineyards that could easily be made up, from grape juice and rubbing alcohol and few would be the wiser. I decide to risk it on a tempranillo and wander the aisles trying to find N. There is no cel phone service here, so I cannot call her.

I pass a shelf of pickled herring and see an abandoned soda cup from McDonalds. A laugh jumps out of my mouth. I imagine the irate person who left it there, the super-market anarchist. Or, they are just profoundly lazy.







23 June 2014

home improvements

The bathroom ceiling starting peeling off in long giant curls some months ago. I tried not to look up, to see it deteriorate out of the corner of my eye then press the images out of my mind, concentrating on the face in the mirror, the mouth foaming with toothpaste, N behind me reaching for a q-tip, E asking if we can go downstairs and ride her scooter today.

At one point, we understood the old landlady would try to fix it herself, half-blind with cheap paint an a rickety ladder, trying to put a giant wet band-aid on it hoping it will go away. I said no, that will not happen. We need to scrape things down to where the problem began. Smooth it, seal it, prime it, and then give everything a fresh coat. And while we're at it, yes - the kitchen cabinets are all wobbly, the chairs need some screws and strong wood glue on the joints and yes, we need a new shower head. 

A week later I spent half on evening trolling around a giant home improvement store with N, my stomach empty and growling as my voice rose in disbelief, as salesmen sent us on wild goose chases for carpenter's glue, as we passed the same cordless drills time and again until the cart was full of gloves and paint rollers, of magnets and spackle. I used to build things for a living - opera scenery, circus rings, perfume showrooms on the 57th floor. I always had a pencil behind my ear, sawdust caked in my pant cuffs, long red scratches on my rough palms, a yellow jackknife in my pocket that was my grandfather's. I welded in a sweltering Brooklyn warehouse in August, the tiny hot beads popping onto my sleeves and burning little holes in them. I ran plexiglass through table saws, ripped lumber,  built walls and contraptions and slept good sleeps. I drank cold beer from cans at the end of the day, admiring the fruit of labor or a well-packed truck. 

There were years of this construction, this making-of-things, this understanding of dimensions, of the knot in a board and how it would pull way from the blade. And then one day, I left my bag of tools on the floor never to return. My cherished, sharp chisels, the old Estwing hammer, the nail set, the matte knife, an all-around good plane, spare jigsaw blades and the rest. I thought of them years later, to retrieve them from that small, cold studio on South 6th street in Brooklyn, but then I understood they were long gone.


The paint is dancing off the end of my scraper. It rains onto the hair on my arms as I slide it across the ceiling. There is an eerie sense of relief as the process finally begins. E stands in the door, gazing up at me balanced on the last step of the old lady's ladder.
"Is that gonna take a long time?" She asks me at one point.
"If I do it right, yes." I answer, spitting some dust from my lips. "If I do it bad, not so long."
She nods, her hand on her hip.
"Just tell me if you need me to do something." She announces.
"Tell me when it is five." I tell her. "So we can do down and you can ride your scooter."
"Ok." She chirps, disappearing from the doorway and then popping her head back in.
I look down at her, feeling the muscles in my forearm begin to twitch.
"What." I ask her.
"I love you, Pop." She says, smiling quickly and then going back to the living room.





16 June 2014

the yellow shoes (a prologue)

The yellow shoes are too big. She struggles on the kitchen floor with the straps, ankles twisting around. I can easily slide two fingers under the front part around her toes. She has narrow feet, like I do. We had shopped on a website, picking out a practical pair of sandals, a more dressy pair and then these wedges. She wants heels and I understand that along with the daily manicure she gives herself in alternating colors that this is something she waited for very patiently. The heels were the smallest ones available and at one point we did not think we would get them at all. It is not that there is a shortage of size 33 heels in the city, just that these struck her eye. It was all about these heels, with the tangle of flowers wrapping around the bottoms, the peek-a-boo toe cutout. 

She stands, taller, wobbling into the hallway to see herself in the mirror. They are making clicking noises. The skin jumps on my arms, not ready to see her take this leap forward but knowing there is little I can do but observe. This is a prologue to her teenage years, I tell myself. A glimpse into the first pages of the next chapter. 




She knows they are impossible to wear. I point out how well the practical pair from Italy fits, how cool they are. We even adjust the second pair and they fit better than I thought they did. But the yellow shoes are impossibly loose and there is no padding, no insole, no solution that will solve this.

She slumps into her chair in the kitchen, her face in her elbow, her hair a tangle of ends covering her face. I think to let her have it out for a little while, to let her feelings tumble onto the table freely. I have always had this idea that when you feel something you should admit it, but try to get the feelings all of the way out as quickly as they can so they do not take root. How many times have I told her "It's alright to cry, but not for hours." I remember when she was five and I had just moved out, how we lost a minuscule plastic shoe from a tiny doll on the walk home from kindergarden and how she howled and blubbered and cried like I had never seen her before. "I don't have anything." She shouted, hanging onto the edge of a door.
"Anyyyyyyythhiiiiiiing." She repeated over and over.


I take her in my arms, trying to explain that she will grow into the yellow wedges, that this is better than buying shoes that are too small. She nods, she knows this already.
"I am just disappointed." She blurts out between the snot bubble on the tip of her nose and the tears dribbling from the edges of her mouth.
"Well, everyone gets disappointed." I tell her. "Everyone gets surprised by things. Nothing in life is guaranteed."
"I know." She says after a moment. "I just thought this time it would be ok."
I just sit with her for some time in silence, her slumped against me.
At one point she sits up a little.
"I want to go to bed." She tells me.

I tuck her in. She is still crying, not sleepy at all.
I play some guitar for her, making up a silly song about yellow shoes. She appreciates the gesture but the jokes fall flat.
I put the guitar down, just holding her hand as she stares at the ceiling.
"I didn't think something like this would be so upsetting for you. " I tell her. "Is it better we didn't buy any shoes at all?"
She shakes her head no.
"I'm sad about more than the shoes." She whispers to me.