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Archive for February, 2013

For my Mom.

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I always remembered her lips. Round, smooth, never chapped and always pink and shiny, even in the coldest Russian winter. I haven’t seen her in twenty years, but when she wrote and asked to meet, the first thing I thought of were her lips. Not how she had hurt me, not how I had run away – her lips. Are they the same lips, I wondered, plump and moist, as if gilded by a morning dew? Does she still apply Chap Stick in the middle of a hurried storytelling or a recital, as she did back then, in St. Petersburg Conservatory – leaning forward, absorbed by the boys’ chorus singing a cappella, their high voices reverberating off the ceilings? Or in the midst of telling me of her boyfriend back in New York, wondering if he’d been faithful while she was away, trying on Russia?

Every time we talked, my eyes rested on her lips, soft as a child’s skin, their smooth curves as if outlined by a painter. Not that I ever touched them, but I must have missed half of her stories watching her lips. How they moved. How they glistened after she licked them. How they stretched into a smile, exposing two rows of perfectly even white teeth.

I was ready to turn off the dim desk light, my husband already asleep, his tall body draped over the bed, when I saw her email. After all these years Eden wanted to meet, as if nothing had ever happened. As if she hadn’t made me feel homeless and unwanted; as if I hadn’t cried every night for a week, alone in a foreign city that was her home, where she was my only friend. As if I could erase my memories of first sharing Russia with her, later wrecked by the cold shower of her irritation and annoyance with me in New York – because I stayed at her parent’s townhouse on Gramercy Park for a week too long.

But that was twenty years earlier. I had moved out of her parents’ house. I had found a job. I’d gotten married and had kids. So had she. And now she wanted to meet, in the city, which has become home to us both, and where we could have lived the rest of our lives without ever seeing each other again. Without exchanging another word, another glance, or point of view. Never having to remember what we shared back then, at twenty. Our walks along the Neva, the White Nights, the never-ending days, the evenings stretching into mornings under pretense of dusk; slumber parties, Eden wearing a torn Beatles tank top, me in a new Run DMC T-shirt. Translating Akhmatova’s poems into English, and Blake’s into Russian, reading Nabokov’s Lolita in two languages at once, savoring every vowel as if it were a jewel, wondering if she’d ever speak Russian like that, if I’d ever speak English like this.

Today, twenty years later we’ll meet again, because I said I’d love to. Because I forgave her. Because I didn’t think she’d remember my hurt. It was my hurt. And she probably had enough of her own to bother thinking about mine. Everybody has hurts. One doesn’t even have to ask, to know how much pain a person has had in her life. Just stand closer without uttering a word, look into her eyes a little longer… it’s all there.

So I’ve forgiven her even before I agreed to meet. She was still the same Eden, who had sat across from my mom at our kitchen table in St. Petersburg. I can’t sit across from Mom anymore, but I can sit across from Eden, so I went.

On Thursday afternoon, walking towards the meeting place I suggested, a small Italian Salumeria across from Verdi Square, I looked at my reflection floating in the windows, wondering what I’d say.  “Kak dela?” or “How are you?” Would she speak Russian to me and I, English to her, as we had back then?

I spotted her as she walked out of a chocolate shop, and saw her lips: pink and moist, stretched into a Cheshire smile. Eden – the mother of two, a 40-year old, with a few wrinkles around her eyes, but her tight full lips, unchanged. I felt as if a piece of my youth had been given back to me. Why was it a relief to know that her fabulous lips were intact after all these years, as if they held a secret to preserving my own life? We hugged.

“Shopping for chocolates?” I asked.

She laughed. “They have the same store in my building in Brooklyn,” she said. “I had no idea they were in Manhattan too.”

“I wanted to sit outside,” I said in Russian. Eden nodded and sat down, hurriedly putting away The New Yorker she held under her arm, then fumbling with a white serviette. A twig of rosemary fell out from it and Eden picked it up. I looked away to give her a moment. Was she nervous?

It was the first spring day after the longest winter. Forsythias and dandelions bursting with yellow. Pregnant women no longer covering their bellies, as if ready to aknowledge to the world the lives inside them.

I had wine, Eden didn’t.  She was still breastfeeding, she said. I’d stopped a year earlier. We talked, in English. Her father had died 10 years ago. I told her my mother had thought him so elegant and well groomed, unlike the men at her research institute.

“Well-groomed?” Eden asked and laughed.

“Yes, that’s what she said.”

My mother had died 19 years ago, I told her. Eden’s green eyes glistened.

“She made the best pirozhki in the world,” she said. I nodded. The cherry trees across Amsterdam Avenue unfolded in pink fuzziness. I thought of Mom’s hands.

“I want to bring up something from the past,” Eden said. “You probably don’t even remember this episode, but it’s been haunting me for a long time. Before you moved out of our house, you told me that I’d changed so much since Russia, and had become nepristupnaya… I didn’t know the word and had to look it up. Unapproachable. You told me I’d become unapproachable, not the person you knew.” Eden took a sip of water from the tall glass in front of her. “I want to apologize. Will you forgive me?” Her lips quivered and a round tear rolled out of her right eye and settled on her upper lip.

I touched her lips for the first time. They were as soft I’d imagined. I caressed her forehead and her eyebrow. I told her I didn’t remember saying those words, but that the hurt still lingered somewhere in my body, behind the rib cage, on the left, close to where the heart is. That I didn’t think she’d remembered “the episode”. I told her I’d forgiven her. We’ve known each other for more than half of our lives.

As I looked at her round face, framed by short brown hair with streaks of gray, into her green eyes made bigger by sadness and regret, I thought about how we had met and then parted, like two ships that left a harbor in different directions, sailed through rough waters, lost the way at times, and then drifted back. Is this a safe harbor now? I’d like to think it is. And we’re still the same ships, now moored, older and rougher on the surface, our sails withered by time and loss, but more forgiving and willing to forget.

After, we talked all the way to the subway, unable to part, as if our words entangled us into their nets, into the woven bits of our lives, each new sentence a string to our past, and perhaps future.

VM © 2011

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It was the turn of her head full of dark curls that stole his breath. He wanted to come closer and place his hand on her neck, trace the curve of her ear lobs, bury his face in the unruly hair falling in a wave over her right shoulder. He watched her run her fingers over the cheap jewelry in the gift shop, her lips pursed, and decided to buy it all, the amber necklace, the blue-glass beaded bracelets, the fake emerald brooch, the silver ring with a large round crystal, if only she’d let him place them around her neck, over her breasts, on her fingers and wrists. He approached her from behind, and stood there, eyes closed, inhaling her scent of strawberries, with a touch of cinnamon.

      She turned sharply and he felt pain on the right, where his liver was, as her pointy elbow settled below his diaphragm. He groaned and bent over, placing a hand on her shoulder, a gesture unintentional yet fitting.

      “Oh, I’m so sorry,” she said taking a step back and leaning away from him, her eyes two enormous question marks. “I didn’t mean to hit you.”

      He cracked his face into a smile and managed, “It’s my fault. I didn’t mean to startle you.”

      He felt so short of breath that he lowered himself to the floor, his back against the counter, and she slid down next to him. They sat there for a few moments, in silence, looking at the opposite wall with displays of masks and trophies, like two visitors in a museum staring at a painting they couldn’t understand.

      “You seemed really taken by those,” he said pointing to the jewelry counter above and behind them.

      “I designed them,” she said. “I come here every once in a while to see if anything got sold. Not much since last week. This is the first store in the city to take on my jewelry.” She sighed. “It’s exciting. But they don’t really sell anything.”

      He chuckled, and offered her a hand to get up.

      “Which one is your favorite?” he asked her. “You must have a favorite, right?”

      She leaned over the counter and he took in the curve of her lower back draped in a black tunic, her pointy bare knees, and tiny feet dressed in red leather shoes with silver buckles. He noticed braided leather bracelets on her wrists, and touched his own.

      “I love the emerald brooch,” she said. “It’s a replica of my grandmother’s. Was a family heirloom until my mother lost it. I recreated it from memory.”

      “I’d love to get it for you…,” he paused. “I don’t even know your name.”

      “Erica.”

      “I’d love to get it for you, Erica. If you let me,” he said.

      “That would be so sweet…” She stumbled.

      “Jake,” he mouthed.

      “Jake,” she repeated.

She lifted her eyes, and he saw the dark green dotted with yellow, circled in black; the curling eyelashes; the thin waves of her eyebrows; the dimples on her freckled cheeks, the chapped pink of her lips, and fell in love.

“Nobody ever bought me jewelry. Perhaps they thought I don’t need any since I design it.”

He paid the fifty dollars, the sum that would ordinarily last him for a week of lunches, and fiddled with the lock, trying to pin the brooch to her jacket, the needle escaping the round head, prickling his fingers. She placed her hand on his.

“Let me,” she said. When she finished, he kept his hand on hers.

Her eyes looked a deeper shade of green with the brooch sparkling below her chin, reflecting the ceiling lights, just above her left breast,.

coney

Jake offered her his hand, and Erica entwined her arm in the nook of his elbow. They walked over to the boardwalk.  The wind has picked up, the waves now crashing on the shore in a steady crescendo, the purple clouds weaving a pattern of giant leaves and flowers over the horizon. The Coney Tower silhouetted against the orange sun like a faithful guard of the boardwalk.

      “Do you live around here?” she asked.

      “No, I’m on the Lower East Side.”

      “What brings you to Coney then?”

      “Friends at the Sideshow. I’m a free-lance clown, mostly in Manhattan.”

      She took a step back and gave him a onceover, a look of disbelief in her green eyes. Jake wrinkled his forehead and nodded, reassuring her. Her laughter rolled like pebbles on the beach. Erica threw her head back, then bent over, hands on knees, charcoal hair falling forward, almost touching the ground.

      “Oh my God,” she said breathless. “I’m sorry. I’ve never met a real clown before. That is so funny.”

      He laughed with her, and their duet sounded to him better than any music.  His eyes teared up, and he had to hold on to the railing. Jake wanted to laugh with her when they were old, when their teeth had fallen out, and gums made smacking noises, and when they could no longer make love, just hold hands.

      He straightened out, and placed his hand on Erica’s shoulder, then fixed the single hair stuck on her lip. They haven’t even kissed and he already thought of spending his last days with her.

      Erica moved in two weeks later, with her overweight cat, three old leather suitcases full of skirts and semi-precious gems and tools, and a jewelry worktable. He pushed aside the costumes in the closet, and sat on the bed watching her place skirt after skirt on hangers that looked like torture contraptions with multiple metal latches to hold several pieces. Erica hummed “Let it be, let it be,” as she struggled to fit in the last of her wardrobe. Jake got up and took the hanger from her, placed it on the closet door, and walked her to the bed. They stayed there until the stars filled the frame of a darkened window.

      The ring had a dot of emerald surrounded by specks of diamonds, the gold band thin as a hair. He had spent the last of his money on the vet for her fat cat. “Now you know why I’m always broke,” she had said as they picked up the cat. “He’s my best friend, and I’d do anything for a friend.” And he would do anything for her.

      Jake made penne with cherry tomatoes in olive oil, sprinkled with oregano, set the round table with tea candles and greeted her at the door with a glass of red.

    “Has it really been two months?” Erica kissed him on the lips and sat down stretching her legs. He traced the outline of her smooth calves, unfastened the silver buckles, slid off the shoes and kissed her toes, one by one, then placed the small box between her feet. Erica lowered herself on her knees, next to him. Jake thought he noticed a hint of hesitation cloud her face, but the next moment she opened the box, smiled, and said, “Yes.”

      He felt as proud as he had back in high school, when he won a national archery contest and all the girls discovered him for the first time. The trophy still graced one of the shelves in his apartment – their apartment – next to his cactuses and masks. He felt that he had finally won the main prize: his bride, the most beautiful girl in the world. What better present could he wish for his thirtieth birthday? He had proved his father wrong.

      Erica came to see his performance a week later. Jake felt proud to have her in the audience, emerald eyes locked on his hands, as he made tangerines disappear between his fingers. She came backstage after and invited him for a drink, just the two of them.

      “Sweetheart, wouldn’t you like to go out with the cast? They’re great people, and I’d love to show off my future wife,” he said, running his hand through her smooth black hair, kissing her forehead.

      “I’d like to be alone with you tonight, if you don’t mind.”

      Jake marveled at how much this woman loved him, and cherished every moment alone with him. He would do anything for her, anything at all.

“Of course,” he said squeezing her small hand.

Erica rolled and unrolled the napkin on her plate until the fork fell to the floor, its clinking interrupting the white noise of the restaurant. Heads turned and he saw a flicker of annoyance on her face.

“Is everything all right, sweetheart?” He asked and put his hand over hers. “Is something the matter?”

Erica removed his hand from his, and straightened in her chair.

“Everything is great. There is just one thing,” she said and took a sip of water.

Jake felt the muscles in his jaw tighten. “I’m listening.” He bit his tongue and flinched but she didn’t notice.

“I didn’t know how to tell you. I wasn’t sure about it, actually, but now I am.”

He felt warm inside, not worried at all. He knew what she was about to say, and smiled inwardly.

“I’m pregnant. It’s too late for an abortion. And I wanted to keep it anyway.”

Jake cocked his head to the side, marveling at her beauty and determination. He always wanted a daughter, a little copy of him, who’d run around and laugh at his magic tricks.

“Of course, my love! We shall have this baby.” He covered her hand with his, the engagement ring settling under his palm, stroking her perfectly shaped fingernails.

Erica wiggled out her hand and he watched her drink a full glass of water, gulp after gulp, her eyes set on him without blinking. She put the glass down and dried her mouth with a sleeve of her shirt.

 “I was pregnant when we met.”

The ice cubes from his glass hit the floor and slid under the table. Jake felt his shins prickled by the cold bites. He looked at Erica, who kept saying something to him, and couldn’t decipher the words, as if she was encased in a balloon and speaking in a slow motion, “boowaoo, boowaoo” coming out of her mouth. He felt pain in his chest and thought of all the arrows that have flown out of his bow.

“I understand if you want to break off the engagement.” He watched her take the ring off. “That man meant nothing to me. I just wanted a baby. I don’t expect you to understand. I’m really sorry.”

She got up from the table and headed towards the exit. Jake now felt as if he was in a movie, and couldn’t wait for it to end, for the titles to appear, so that his Erica could come back to him, without another man’s child growing inside her.

“Wait!” he shouted.

Erica stopped and turned half way, craning her neck, the gesture that stole his breath two months earlier. Jake watched her loosen her hair from a bun with one hand, the black waves settling on her shoulders. She completed the turn, like a gymnast straining not to lose balance at the end of the performance, looking small but determined, waiting to be judged, a smear of red lipstick on her right cheek.

“Wait!” his father had screamed at him, the eight year-old balancing on the edge of a cliff. Thirty feet below, the dark ocean water roared like an animal. Jake turned back, then pushed away with both feet.

He was flying.

(c) Vica Miller 2012

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