For my Mom.
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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