I have gotten into a habit of saying that I do not like women. When I first began to drop that line, it was out of an uncomplicated desire to give the impression of being unruffled and unapproachable; the two uns uniting to make me unique – oh-so-different from the proverbial girly-girl chatterbox and shopaholic. Yet, just as the next girl I love to discuss clothes, ‘who-said-what-and-when-and-why’ and in general I talk crap and wish that I would just shut up and stop being one of them…. The only way to fall out of the loop of realization that I was the most ordinary woman and attempting to flee that newfound insight was to quietly despise all the members of my sex.
This morning, over yahoo chat, my good friend V. asked me how to boil an egg. Brave survivor of last week’s stomach flu and a stranger to bland foods, my thirty-two-year-old pal has conquered the making of white rice; yet it seems that eggs remain a complete mystery! As I pondered my answer; how many minutes does one boil an egg before it cracks? How to check whether or not the egg is ready? …Vaquely remembered something about spinning it…yet, how does one spin a boiling hot egg?; thoughts unrelated to the gracefully twirling, hopefully uncracked egg began to flutter in my restless yet utterly useless, as of late, brain.
All of the rooms were on the third floor, but the kitchen and the bathroom were on the fourth. As I ran into the kitchen I saw one of my neighbors -Tanya- a rigid, masculine woman in her mid thirties, already missing a couple of teeth, holding on to her daughter with one of her massive hands while gripping tight hold of another neighbor, six year old Dimka, with the other. In what seemed as a surprisingly calm tone, she was instructing her daughter to bite her playmate: “bite him, Natasha, bite him while I can grab hold of him.” Natasha obliged. He screamed in pain and I became frozen inside the high pitched sound…
I must have not thought that he was little, for I was his age; all I remember was the redness of their faces and the air of determination. The mother and daughter were indomitable in their conviction that Dimka must be taught a lesson He was screaming and kicking and trying to free himself, but all was in vain. I ran downstairs as fast as I could; the stairs were old, wooden and steep; shaking from a nauseating mix of confusion, fear and empathy, I literally flew down and away, away from “This is what you get for…” discipline of biting and forced constraint and unfathomable, useless high-pitched defense. The flight back to the row of doors each leading into the rooms of one of seven families living in our communal apartment ended at the second door down the hall – my nanny’s room.
“Can’t you walk in like normal people?” she asked, “All my dishes are shaking.” She was attempting to sound strict; however I knew that I was now safe from the disturbing events of the kitchen. The screaming was still audible, but I was already quite preoccupied with trying to get up on a chair to reach a jar full of candy that for some reason were called “theatrical.” It was hard candy, wrapped in dark green paper, and there was absolutely nothing special about it, except the fact that my parents never had any candy and my nanny always did.
I just knew that they did something wrong. Nobody told me what it was, but the suspense was enough. I must have been not more than six, Dimka must have been the same age too, (about a year after the gruesome biting incident we ended up in the same first grade class); Natasha was a few years older. My parents did not let me play with them, but I do not remember them telling me that I could not. I just knew that spending time with the two of them was not something good girls did.
I do not remember where I came from that day, or what I was doing after I ran into my nanny’s room, as every other distant memory this one simply appears out of nowhere and fades without a clear connection to anything that came before or after. But I can easily see Natasha, as though I just saw her come in to borrow some sugar, as she used to. She was big boned as was her mom, with thick dirty blond hair that Russian girls often have, but hers seemed different than most…It seemed dirtier, heavier, and straighter. My thin red curls were probably just as dirty, but the sheer mass of her hair lingers in my memory along with the desire to braid it. And one time I almost got that chance. I remember the buildup of excitement at the thought that I was going to play with that river of hair all by myself. As always, I was in my nanny’s room and when Natasha happened to walk in, instead of completely ignoring me as older girls tend to do with much younger ones, she suggested we play mom and daughter. I happily obliged provided she accommodates one simple request – letting her daughter braid her new found mother’s hair. She agreed, but asked me to feed her – “Mama is very hungry!” – from the tube of special liquid candy that I was holding in my hand that I became completely oblivious in anticipation of being able to brush and braid her hair. What I now know to be the green artificial goo that comes in little tubes is something I would never let my own son put inside his system, was back in the day and place of my childhood highly coveted desert. One could slowly squeeze out of a tube onto a finger or directly in the mouth, either way it was suppose to last for what seemed as a lifetime. As a cynical adult I am well aware of Natasha’s practical motivations. Having been send by her mother on an errand to my nanny’s room (Salt? Sugar? Yesterday’s newspaper?) Natasha saw me with a tube of candy and immediately had her own agenda to rival mine of getting to touch and braid her hair. The latter was never realized, in a loud-hurried swish reminiscent of the popping sound of the last balloon you try so hard to save, the door into my nanny’s room was flung open. My mother and that expression I knew very well. Time to go! In fact, I was not supposed to be there in the first place. I was supposed to be reading in our room waiting for my mother’s return.
As for Natasha, from time to time her mother would chop off most of her hair with what seemed as a kitchen knife, but that is of course my adult cynicism. In that world nobody could afford to cut their childrens hair at SnipIts and there was no SnipIts, the only reminder of the distant America was a poem that most children knew about an aggressive capitalist from United States who owned a bunch of ships and factories but was miserly and lonely. The poet did not care to elaborate whether or not the protagonist was lonely because he did not grow up with twenty five people in one apartment with one kitchen and one bathroom.
Natasha was biting Dimka – the son of an alcoholic father and a gentle hard-working mother who had night shifts at the local factory…Everyone predicted that Dimka will end up growing up into a thug ever since he was three years old. During the months Dimka’s dad was out of prison for some drunken fight or a random misdemeanor charge, he would keep busy by drinking, beating his wife and singing on the infamous staircase that lead to the bathroom and the kitchen…the same one where Dimka was being bitten by those he wronged. Before your imagination sketches a pitiful portrait, let me stop you: imagining Dimka’s dad as an abusive husband and a drunk would not serve him justice (justice! HA!) , in fact, his artistic self was certainly dedicated to his marriage, at least while he was on the staircase, for he would only sing one song: an old Russian catchy pop from the seventies – the chorus line began with the very profound statement that a wedding ring was far from a simple piece of jewelry.Getting lost in the memories that are becoming more and more blurry I try to regain my control over them. One second it feels as though I can almost touch them, but just like the possibility of playing with Natasha’s hair it fades into non reality.
The fact that during Soviet times, a lot of Russians lived with a multiple number of unrelated families in one apartment (a room per family) is no longer surprising to anyone, but it does not cease to amaze me how people didn’t murder one another, the gruesome killings provoked by the neverceasing wife-beating and drunken singing. I think if fate would put six or seven modern-day American families into a seven bedroom apartment with one stove and one bathroom, nobody would come out alive… It is definite that no one would sing. But here we were families, sharing one stove and one bathroom, with no shower or bathtub..
I ran into my nanny’s room to hide from something my six years old mind could not comprehend, something that I was hoping to leave behind me as I shut the door behind myself and faced my warm, protective caretaker. But every time I see little kids fight in the school yard or a neighborhood playground I realize that regardless of the fact that one had to go to another floor to wash one’s face or boil an egg, I had a happy childhood. If only I knew what Dimka thought.
“If you are afraid of loneliness, do not marry.” – Anton Chekhov
The streaks of pink and dark blue in the evening sky were in such striking contrast, one could not help but think two worlds collided in battle, leaving us to helplessly observe in awe from down below. The celestial argument was settled quickly and darkness reigned until dawn.
Marina slept on her side, with the covers tucked closely around her. Ever since she was a little girl darkness left her feeling uneasy. She was vigilant about covering each body part. This irrationality followed her into adulthood – for as long as neither toe nor elbow peeked from underneath the blanket, she would be safe from all startling mysteries of the dark.
In unintentionally defiant contrast to their mother’s fears, her girls slept on top of jumbled up covers. Limbs stretched out across the bed in simultaneous celebration of childhood, unabashed freedom and joy; the latter being temporarily on pause, but ready to sprout at the first sign of dawn.
The youngest one, Abby, was just a baby when Marina decided to leave her husband, Abby and Sam’s father, and pursue what started as a mindless love affair at the office. Her new husband was fifteen years her senior and little remained from the passion that caused the centripetal force of events leading Marina to leave the safe harbor of her previous marriage.
Sam was a girlie replica of her father, down to the unruly hair that, these days, Marina had to struggle with every morning.
“Leave me alone, Mom. You are hurting me. Nobody cares what my hair looks like except you, ” Sam would scream as she pulled away from Marina and the brush, leaving the former with a persistent desire to smack her and the latter with a chunk of long, coarse, tangled, but nevertheless shiny strands. Sometimes, while cleaning out the brush after Sam’s morning escapades, Marina thought of her ex-husband and how, long ago, she sat next to him in the passenger seat of his old Pontiac and continuously brushed coarse brown waves away from his perfect forehead.
Marina frequently argued with her eldest daughter, hated herself for it and secretly wished she were more like her. Ever since she was a baby, Sam’s balletic grace was a jarring source of Marina’s pride and, even a trace of envy. ‘How could have I created someone so perfect,’ she thought, as she watched then three-year-old Sam, move to some cheapened version of classical music, in one of a million ‘parent and child’ classes she took her to, back in the day. Anytime she would catch a glimpse of Sam dancing or simply walking down a long corridor at home – Marina stared at her daughter’s straight back, long limbs and wondered where a child this small learned this confidence, this almost monarchial presence.
Marina, herself, could not walk five steps without tripping. She battled every sharp corner of furniture, as though purposefully in the way of her middle-of-the-night walk to check on her children or get a glass of water. She hated her daughters’ toys scattered around the floor specifically in her hurried path. She despised innocently flat hardwood because it rarely failed to trip her in an awkward and painful way, particularly when there were visitors.
Sam had a loud laugh and found her mom’s clumsiness hilarious. The child’s throaty unrestrained laughter had no trace of ill-wishing (unbeknownst to Marina, Sam adored her mother and preferred her company to that of any friend) nevertheless Marina interpreted it as insensitive mocking, proceeded to lose her temper, occasionally slapped her kid, and immediately hated herself for it.
When the youngest, Abby, cried, which she did often, the blue with scattered patches of grey in her irises became almost translucent, creating a misleading appearance of an opportunity to look in. When she was a toddler, Marina frequently consoled her; picked her up, held, hugged, explained –simultaneously amazed at the immediate transformation of her eyes, at their transparency and, paradoxically, how impenetrable they seemed. But as Abby got older, Marina realized that the more she consoled her daughter the more she cried, so she learned to tune out her daughter’s wailing and frequently told her to toughen up.
She saw a lot of herself in her younger daughter, and worried that she would repeat her mistakes…
The first thing she noticed was that his wrists were very thin, too thin for a grown man of his height. She watched his arm move along the paper and tried very hard to focus on what he was saying, writing and drawing in a notepad, after all, it was detailed explanation of what had to be done before the first review. Marina’s numerous jobs after college convinced her that work was not something that required emotional or mental commitment, it was merely something that had to be gotten through with minimal effort.
As a young girl, she dreamt of becoming an actress, but the images this career choice evoked in her mind were drastically different from those of her father, who frequently told her that life as an actress comes with a single guaranteed role – that of a beggar with a large coffee cup, as well as a single line -“Change, please?” Following her father’s advice she ended up with a degree in accounting and hopped from job to job in search of something that did not exist in the field of assets and liabilities. At her first husband’s advice she solidified her resume with a few computer courses and was armed with knowledge and experience to sustain a job in any market – her father’s dream come true.
Marina’s superior continued talking and she continually followed his skinny wrist with her half-absent gaze and thought that she could not imagine being in this office eight hours a day. Her mind frantically searched for something that would help her make peace with reality of nine-to-five existence between grey walls, with Kafkaesque characters, and this grown man with wrists that could easily be that of a dainty woman if they were not abundantly covered in black hairs.
At times she became very angry with herself for this perpetual inability to focus and made countless promises to herself that she will change. This was not new. Years before two husbands, daughters – when Marina was a child; she stood next to her desk, tuning out embarrassing lecture by her teacher for being tardy as well as for forgetting her notebook on the very first day of third grade. At that precise moment, unexplainably – as most memories that haunt for a lifetime, she made her first solemn promise to herself – to be permanently done with lack of focus, tardiness and being lectured by teachers.
The desk, notepad and hairy forearm monotonously moving before her eyes were very different from the scenario surrounding her school desk and ninety-page-lined notebook, with the squirrel on the front cover, that her mom bought for her at some back-to-school sale about a quarter of a century ago.
Her superior continued inundating her with simultaneous writing and talking, taking a pause from writing only to emphasize, twice, that what he was about to sketch was very important… Marina made an effort to follow but got distracted by an overweight older woman on the other end of the office, who was making an attempt to extricate herself from the entrapment of her chair and desk and walk towards the door.
The metamorphosis that Marina’s body underwent following three pregnancies, only two of which were viable, made her extremely empathetic to women who carried extra weight. She was unwavering in her conviction that inside every woman of any weight there was a memory of a previously lanky skinny supermodel version of her present self. The idea that some people were happily voluptuous seemed to her as an excuse that people made because they did not have the stamina to stop eating after six o’clock in the evening. This arbitrary six o’clock rule became a staple of healthy way of life, as weeks of promising herself to not overeat after the girls went to bed, became years.
The heavy set finally made it to the door. Marina wondered why a lot of women who carry extra weight end up in a proverbial pear shape. It was certainly silly, she thought, to assume that extra weight around the shoulders would appear more attractive. She mentally shifted the extra fifty pounds around the body of the woman that just left the office, but could not find peace with any redistribution of weight. She sighed in order to vocalize her empathy for her newfound, unfortunate, co-worker; superior looked up from the notepad and turned his head to look at Marina. She coughed and stared at the desk, making an effort to appear extra focused, even though by that point she had absolutely no idea what the diagrams were referring to. She thought she misheard when he said: “You are clearly bored, why don’t we take a walk.”
Marina woke up because she heard Sam yelling for Abby to get away from the former’s toys and the latter’s whaling response that she had no intention of touching Sam’s stuff and, that, she, in fact, hates Sam and the last thing she wants to do is touch anything that belongs to her sister. Marina tried to block the ever-rising pitch of her offspring’s voices, she hid her head under the pillow and tried to remember what day it was.
Sunday! That means Seb is playing volleyball and she is the only one who can settle life-and-death argument in the room next to hers. She sat up on the bed, her foot found Seb’s shorts with belt pulled through halfway tangled up with the pair of his dirty socks. Marina cursed, picked up her husband’s clothes and got up from the bed. As she shuffled her feet to the door she contemplated making chocolate chip pancakes with silly faces for the girls, hoping to momentarily relieve their eternal frustrations with each other, and, perhaps, mitigate her own, by now overgrown, resentment of her husbands oh-so-cliché midlife crisis.
Seemingly eternal subject of mockery for her friends, Seb ran seven miles every morning, lifted weights four times weekly and played volleyball with his, much younger, friends When it came to this schedule, Seb was unwavering; neither anger not tears helped Marina in getting her husband to accompany her to an event or, simply, to stay home with her and the girls on Sunday mornings. She knew, that approaching Fifty terrified him, and that he spent more time looking in the mirror than she did. His own two sons were now in college, and he did not feel any responsibility for Marina’s daughters, other than, on occasion, when their incessant arguing interfered with his deadline, he would snap and, that, usually, resulted in half-an-hour of quiet.
Marina’s thoughts performed their quotidian dance and twirled back to the early days in her second marriage, after the black-and-blue marks of divorce were starting to heal, and finally she and Seb were free to be together and free of looking at watches, phones, and, at last, free from their conscience. During those first weeks in their first joint apartment – lazy Sunday mornings when breakfast was the last thing on their minds; they stayed in bed and talked of baby names (he desperately wanted another to add a fifth child to their own sets of two), traveling, moving to Europe… And then they would not talk for a while..and talk again… Marina remembered that sneaky sunlight would leak into the room through the tiny spaces that curtains seemed to miss and betray their denial that there was a world outside, that they were living a rare, momentary privilege. Not everyone was in bed during Sunday afternoons entangled in warmth and connection; arms, legs and thoughts intertwined – that Marina knew very well these days! If she were to share this memory with Seb at present, he would tell her that she has an overly active imagination. But one does not long for what one has imagined, human mind (and heart!) longs for things that have passed and could have still been if life did not get in the way.
Marina showered and tried to avoid the mirror on the way out of the bathroom. Extra thirty pounds were ever-present, uninvited company and any reminder ruined, already rather unstable, mood. By now, the girls settled their argument and were waiting for her in the kitchen.
“Mom, you do realize its eleven o’clock and we are hungry,” Sam interrupted Marina’s scattered thoughts. Somehow, her daughter’s tone made Marina abandon the earlier idea of pancakes. She put a box of Cheerios on the table and told Sam to get the milk. Hopping on one leg in front of the fridge, Sam was wearing a tank top, her perfect profile and shoulders sent a twinge of piercing warmth through Marina’s heart, but her child’s lack of focus, as well as the shaking of the floor, injected a dose of annoyance, which quickly the previous emotion.
“Stop jumping like an idiot,” Marina barked at her daughter, “I asked you to get milk ten minutes ago.” She knew very well that she asked merely a second ago and that she was acting as someone she, herself, would have judged very harshly – a parent taking out her own frustrations on a child… But she could not control herself.
Sam’s mood was not affected by her mom’s unexpected discourtesy; she hopped over to the table with the carton of milk, and proceeded to hop back to the dishwasher to retrieve some clean plates.
“Mom, can we turn the music on ? Its so dull, dull, dull?” she hummed as she scanned through one of Seb’s devices that seemed to be perpetually connected to the speakers ready for the selection du jour. Before Marina could respond, Kylie Minogue screamed from the speakers – “I just can’t get you out of my head.” Marina laughed at her eleven-year-olds slightly outdated selection and got up to dance. Abby jumped up and grabbed her hands and they twirled and yelled out “la, la, la!” along with Kylie, whose pictures in gossip magazines suggested that she was just as preoccupied with retaining her youth as Marina’s husband.
Sam wasn’t dancing. She sat down at the table and picked cheerios one by one out of the box. “I thought you were the one who wanted music?” Marina laughed as she continued twirling in circles with giggling Abby. Something about the way Sam looked at her made her feel self conscious, she turned the volume down and sat back at the table.
“How many times did I tell you to not stick your hands inside a cereal box. Are you a girl or a pig?” Marina inquired with such firmness in her voice, one could have thought that she wanted a definitive answer. “What did I do now?” retorted Sam. Overall, Marina was not sure how to answer that question. She did not have much time to ponder it too, because the dog gave up on looking at Sam and her cereal, with eyes that conveyed that Cheerios were the only thing that stood between it and death, and ran towards the front door, wagging his tail. Seb was back from volleyball.
Her lip was bleeding. Her short brown hair, neither unkempt nor neatly flat, made it easy to mistake her for a boy, and back then, she always ran with the boys during recess; except sometimes when she didn’t. That day she stayed by the classroom and played ‘war’ with two other girls.
With N.s questionnaire open on my lap, I felt nervous, in a way, that should not be familiar to normal 10 or 12 year olds. I felt that I couldn’t swallow, as though a sharp object lodged itself somewhere in my chest and refused to relent, to let me breath in. Why did I care if my name was in there? What would it change? With a sincere, comforting look on her face N. announced, “Lets see who else wrote about you?””Who else?” What do you mean who else?” I was caught off guard.
Didn’t you know that last week S. wrote that she hates all the boys in the class and you? – N. Seems surprised that this reassuring news hasn’t reached me yet.
We are getting closer to her stop. No she doesn’t live there. She simply has to switch trains. I want her to go, but at the same time, I want to know what else is in that wretched notebooks of hers. Her questionnaire is almost full, she was the most popular girl in the class. “Lets see:” she repeats, trying to reach the metal bar above her head so not to completely fall onto me, the gentleman that is ready to explode and the lady with her potatoes. Her notebooks is still on top of the pile of our bags, she is leaning against it, the angry gentleman is still mumbling that this ride would be a lot of tolerant if we were to shut up. “Lets see…” N leafs through the pages, reads two or more names from her stationery social barometer, but it doesn’t seem to matter or hurt as much. She chatters away about a girl that all the boys put in their “attracted to” column; how she doesn’t get it what they see in her? But even back then, I knew that she was simply jealous. She is just a girl, and until this questionnaire it seemed certain it was her that everyone liked.She has long and well manicured nails covered with bright red nail polish, I hide my ink stained hands with short, uneven fingernails and think how amusing it is that my last name starts with the same, rather rare, letter of the Russian alphabet, as that of a girl that all the boys like.Its just a few different letters of a last name…and it could be me?!
The voice of the recorded announcement reminds N. that she has to make her way through the crowd, taking away my irreversible social verdict and her incredibly heavy school bag. An avid reader and a perfect student, she seemed to carry her knowledge on her back and public transportation, an hour and a half one way, to and from school. She hurried towards the exit, the old man signed with relief. Finally, some peace and quiet!
I knew that I was not pretty long before that day on a subway. Once, when N. and my other friends were looking at my kindergarten picture one of them blurted, “Wow! That’s not bad. I guess you were actually cute back then.”Once again, I am looking at the yellowing photograph of my Russian class of 1994, though it was a while before the nineties came. It was 1987. N. is amazing unattractive, she looks mousy, but her strength and intelligence shines through the crowd of forty kids and the distance from the lens and two decades of fluid time. The girl that all the boys liked, is beautiful and serene. I have a goofy smile on my face, it is ironic that I am one of the few kids that is smiling. I guess back then I was still oblivious to my lowest rank in the class.
The girl with the bleeding lip has a gorgeous Italian name. The ultra feminine moniker did not suit her ultimate tomboyishness. But back in third grade when she was dragged away by her captors towards the bench-prison, I did not realize why she was so incredibly angry at my unwarranted interference. She didn’t bite her lip to be a realistic prisoner of war, she bit it to fit in. She bled her way into acceptance, and I got in the way.
It is the only acronym that stabs with just three curvy letters… I am back there, and nothing has changed, not even the secretary whose appetite for gossip parallels her appetite for unhealthy foods. Her body has given up all hope on decently representing what might be a soul. Underneath all the bitter gossip and fascination with the death of celebrities lies a lonely fifty-year-old. Her short curls are sheeplike in texture and mousy in color. Her behind is so flat one can bounce tennis balls off of it. Her body is untouched by a man, at least for the last 20 years; do not ask me how I know, I just do. There is a certain fluidity to a body that is caressed, loved or even merely desired. She seems burdened by her own presense too, at least she is terrified to be alone with her thoughts, and is constantly occupying herself with other people’s business. Hence the formidable result: she will bad-mouth you the second you walk out the door (she desperately wants to be the center of attention) and yet, when you are there, she will offer you help even if you do not ask.
In my dream she watches me audition for a man, a day with whom I have spend a long time ago. All that exists as a proof of that day is a photograph, but a photograph I have only heard of and have never seen. I know that what is frozen, what is immortalized on that photo is the moment he is about to kiss me. I must have been very young when the photo was taken, because he keeps on telling me that I was very young. The protagonist of my dream is in his late fifties. He is not particularly attractive, but he is warm and all his attention is on me. There are only four people auditioning for him, making his intense concentration on me, anything but surprising. I am pretty interesting, aren’t I?
He seems baffled and embarrased to have been so intimate with a teenager. ‘What an old fool I was,’ he exclaims. I do not answer. I am mesmerized with myself on the photo. Was I really ever that young? I am looking straight at the camera when a dizzyingly talented man lowers his face to mine and succumbs, or rather allows himself to momentarily descend (no, plummet!) to my airheaded-unconcerned-self-absorbed-gawky-insecure-waste-time-23-hours-out-of-24-self. I, however, was looking for a camera to play with, to bond with…I was waiting for the lightning of a flash when all I had with him was that moment. And now there is a photograph. And his aging. And I no longer young, but just as self-absorbed, still looking for a camera to bond with, while those I love look at me, barely touching my upper lip.