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Posts Tagged ‘St Petersburg’

This is an unfinished short story from a while back… It takes place in 1991. 

 

It was in Palm Beach that I first wanted to be a cat. Or a dog.

I looked at them lounging poolside, each in its own chez striped in white and red, gray Puffy licking his paws, and two dirty-white Maltese, Buford and Twinkie, one scratching its balls, the other gnawing at its hind paw. Why was it that these puff balls had their breakfast and dinner served on a silver tray, walked three times a day, washed once a week while I had to scrub floors and pretend to be invisible like a modern day Cinderella? Because of Don.

He liked the dogs to kiss him on the lips, the cat to sit on his crotch, and all of them to sleep in his bed. I found the first two repulsive. The latter I could understand as Don was the loneliest man I’ve met, single and childless at 60. He also had the money for a dedicated live-in au pair for his pets. Me.

Didn’t these animals know that I had a graduate degree in Russian Literature (Silver Age) from a top university in St. Petersburg, I wondered taking out cat litter with one hand and squeezing my nose with another; that my father worked with Sobchak when he was the Mayor of Leningrad and that I was invited to model in Paris. Don knew all this, of course, and that’s why he hired me. Even though he later told me it was my long legs that made him choose me from sixty other applicants for the job. Had I not guessed by then that he was gay, I would have run away after the revelation.

Don also knew that I was a 20-year-old girl, alone in New York City, whose tourist visa would soon expire and who had not enough money to buy six chicken nuggets at McDonalds. Four I could afford, not six. How did he know? Perhaps by my look of wounded pride and panic, barely concealed by a forced half smile during the job interview three months earlier. Or conviction with which I told him that I’d be the best person for the job, as I had the intellectual upbringing and grew up with dogs, my broken English no longer an obstacle in conveying this half-lie.

After he explained my duties with the dogs, the dry cleaning and the upkeep of his Midtown penthouse apartment, he showed me to a side room – my own, with yellow and green wallpaper, a lock on the door and a separate pink bathroom, with a bathtub. Maid’s room it was called. Who knew that people still had maids at the end of the twentieth century, and that I’d be one of them? Try telling that to one of my high school friends back in Leningrad. They’d probably pee in their pants that their valedictorian classmate could fall so low. After Perestroika and Glasnost, after Russia’s first free elections, to end up a maid for pets in New York, herself leashed like a dog to room and board, and $150 a week.

The night I moved in, Don told me I could eat anything I wanted from his refrigerator. As I searched for words which would express my gratitude and not reveal the insult, he left the kitchen.

Back at home sugar and salt were allowed strictly in exchange for coupons, half a kilo per month. Was St. Petersburg of 1991 circling back to Leningrad of 1941, I thought, my fingers fetching slobs of crab meat out of a jar I found on the top shelf of Don’s monstrous kitchen cupboard. I’ve never tasted crabmeat before. As a daughter of a distinguished professor who survived the Siege of Leningrad, I didn’t appreciate being reminded that I’d starve, too, if not for the fancies inside Don’s fridge. I finished the crabmeat and drank the salty juice, catching the last drops with my tongue.

I then ate a pack of Raisinets. Their sweet warmth reminded me of childhood, of Grandma buying me a pack of chocolate-covered raisins every Sunday from a street kiosk near her flat. I haven’t had one in 15 years.

What was I doing in Palm Beach? Getting ready for Don’s New Year’s Eve party at his mansion. He told me he was expecting some of America’s richest (old money) and influential (politics) families in attendance and that besides making the house shine I should shine myself. While I accomplished the former in four hours – the four bedrooms, the den, the kitchen and now even the pool was sparkling – making myself shine was harder. I walked into my room, legs shaking, hands aching, and armpits smelling, and sat down on the high bed with embroidered white linens and hand-made quilt. I yearned for some stillness – to sit for a few minutes in the dim den, or lie down on the bed. And I only had one dress, long, black and sleeveless, which cost me whooping thirteen dollars on sale at Express. Not an evening gown, a 100% cotton dress a woman might wear to conceal her legs or hide her hips. I didn’t have to hide my body; people told me I had a perfect figure. I bought it because I could wear it on all occasions. When I showed it to Don, he wasn’t thrilled and left my room. I bit my nails.

“Here,” he said walking back in and handing me a flat white box tied with a silk red bow, puffing on his cigar. “Try that on. I want Koch and Shriver to appreciate my taste in household help.” I heard neither the names nor the offense. I felt like Vivian from “Pretty Woman” – the first film I saw upon arriving in New York. I didn’t have to sleep with the benefactor, though.

What was inside that box? Was he giving it to me for the evening or for good? Maybe I could meet someone at this party who’d tell me that this slaving for Don was only temporary, that I’d get a real job in no time. I united the bow and opened the box. A shimmering piece of red silk slipped from my hands and fell on the bed. The perfect dress I’d seen in my recurring dreams.

“Try it on and let me see,” Don said leaving the room. “The guests arrive in 30 minutes. You’re greeting them with champagne at the door. Have to pour it first, too.”

I took another shower before trying the dress on, as if afraid that the Cinderella transformation wouldn’t be complete without the cleansing. As I watched the water swirl around my feet, I wondered what my ex-boyfriend would think if he saw me in this dress. But first it had to fit.

I smothered my body, shoulders to toes, in a rose body lotion I found in the shower cabinet. “Crabtree & Evelyn,” it said on the label. Smelling like a rose, I wondered what the crab had to do with Evelyn, and who she was. A rose? And then I started to feel like one, petals slowly unfolding, ready for my grand entry to the ball. The look in the mirror, though, revealed that I also shined like a Russian samovar. I powdered my face, then found some talcum powder and put it on my chest and arms to stop them from reflecting the lights. Now I looked like a sugared apple, or a Geisha.

The guests would be arriving in ten minutes. I rubbed off the talcum with a towel, my skin burning; my eyes stinging. Inhale. Exhale. The dress was waiting for me, as was the beginning of something wonderful. I was certain of that.

To be continued

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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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