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A Photograph

“Every man’s memory is his private literature.”
Aldous Huxley

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.

I do not remember when I realized that I am not pretty. There must have been a specific moment, a definite divide, between the time when I felt that I was and the time I realized that I wasn’t. Or was it an instance between a lack of opinion on the subject and the stinging realization, a simple moment that separates nothing from something?
Anyway, her lip was bleeding, and it bothered me; it seemed unnecessary and disturbing. In a snotty, pedagogical tone; so uncharacteristic of my perpetually in trouble, borderline C student self; I told them not to play so rough. The three of them, immersed in their military pretend, strived for realism, but her efforts seemed to be especially dedicated, for she repeatedly bit her lip in order to crack it open and bleed in a real, awe inspiring way. One of the other girls was dragging her to her prisoner’s dungeon, an old bench standing in the middle of the school corridor, to be tied up. The bleeding sadomasochist was now a prisoner of war. I interfered, as I often did in my pre-teen years (who am I kidding?! When did I stop interfering) and she told me in plain 9 year old vernacular to stay the heck away from her business.
It is not quite appropriate to use the term ‘vernacular’ to refer to the discourse of third graders in a specialized English school in the middle of cultural capital of the Former Soviet Union. Most of my classmates were from intelligent (hate word choice!!) Russian families who valued education and hence signed their children up to attend a school with daily English classes, dance lessons and a reputation to die for.
It is often said that we never really know anyone’s journey, which makes speculating about anyone’s feeling (other than one’s own) utterly pointless, but it seemed to me that N. thought that she was perfect. Looking at the slightly yellowing school photograph makes me wonder where this enviable conviction (but far from enviable appearance) came from. (The mere fact that the photograph is becoming yellow (the picture’s equivalent of old age and sage) makes me stare at it in disbelief. I am a decade older than that snapshot of our class. Are the signs of my aging just as obvious? My ‘nostalgia for a year in California’ self-tanner gives me a yellowish glow too, but which one of my corners will start to rip soon?) N and I were on a subway, we could only find one seat; I took it and she piled her book bag and gym bag on top of my lap and got out her famous Questionnaire.
For a mere second, I will let this moment be; I will freeze it along with the exhausted passengers, the downward glances, the grey palette of Soviet attire of mid eighties, (stop, before you falsely associate gray will melancholy, or God-forbid, tranquility). As I sit, squeezed into the tiny space N. noticed when we were carried in (yes, we did not walk into the train, the force of anything but controlled crowd of tired adults on their way from work carried us into the subway train) between a large lady with netlike bags of potatoes and a elderly gentleman who seemed very irritated by his new found company of two loud 11 year olds, chatting away…
My school was gloriously…, I apologize it is still standing in the middle of St. Petersburg, but it could have been anywhere. The school building was old and beautiful; built in 1805, it was the oldest academic institution in the city; though for some reason in my memory the glorious Roman columns of the central stairway go hand in hand with the constant renovation project underway. I do not think we ever did use the main entrance, at least not in the 7 years that I was there.
The portraits of Pushkin (though it were Pushkin’s sons that attended the school century or two ago, long after their father succumbed to his own pride and a bullet) and other famous Russians were staring back at us from the walls of the second floor and most classrooms, but I do not remember most of their faces. I hardly remember the faces of my teachers, even of the one’s I loved. Yet, Every single one of my classmates is before me, as though twenty years has been reduced to a month, a week, a day…
It is hard for my older son to imagine what it is to go through ten years of school with the same class of about forty people. But looking back this relationship with a forced on family of forty, seemingly miniscule part of the billions of people that live in the world: defines your core, your conscience, your loves and intolerances for the rest of your life. (Please forgive the unintended pomposity.,All I can do is measure the world through my own prism, my own almond shaped windows, three or so inches below the hairline. Almost everything I feel, hear, think and smell, reminds me, hurts me, warms me, but in one way or another, it surely carries me back to those seven years in my Soviet school with Roman columns. )
But back to that moment, when an older man is bothered by the constant chatter and N. gets out her thick red notebook. These were drastically different from their long and lean American stationery sisters; much smaller, with a rugged cover and sheets of graph paper. Soviet stationery does seem more practical, for one can write equally well on graph paper as well as lined paper, but writing formulas in math and science is much easier on the former. But that is of course beside the point. N.’s questionnaire was that ninety page square red notebook that most girls in the class dedicated specifically to a series of questions ranging from the more obvious “What is your name?” “Who is your favorite singer?” to “Who do you like in our class?!” “Who do you dislike”! The notebook was to be passed around the class for everyone to put down their set of answers, upon receipt the the proud owner would comment on the margins. Something along the lines of “I can’t believe you like this band. I would have never guessed.”
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.
I squeeze tighter into the space between the gentleman who is getting more annoyed by the second “In my time, children knew how to behave in public. Don’t your parents teach you anything? You need a good whipping!” he mumbles. Parents? What is he talking about?! Does he understand that my life, my essence, my ability to wake up in the morning, dress and walk into my class has been compromised forever? “What is your problem?” N. yells trying to be louder than the subway train. The man is panting with anger. N. is oblivious to our unwilling audience. Don’t you want to know what is written about you?

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.

 

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