Excerpt from THE FENCE
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In spring, the tiny scrap of dry land in front of the house, a square with rough edges, was covered in thin, scraggly grass. In winter, during snowstorms that had become more frequent in recent years, everything around became dirty and grayish, deserted, naked.
In front of the neighboring house number 47 there was planted a little garden, tiny, so lush and well-groomed: improbable, an oasis in the middle of the asphalt ocean.
The Russian family had almost nonstop company. These people were either Russian guests or fellow Russian émigrés. “They will not take away the luxury of friends and sociability!” the wife said hotly. “They took away our theaters, denied us our culture and arts, but the companionship I will not let them take away from me.” She waved her right hand in the air with passion, and then she clammed up, as if shy of her outburst. Who were these bad people who took away her culture? She didn’t clarify.
The next time around the family had some serious company: Dina’s father and sister. They came with a hidden agenda. They wanted to understand if the game was worth the trouble, if there was more to lose than gain. The relatives wished to find out if it was the time to move, to immigrate. Should they join the family or should they live their lives as before, unperturbed? The year was nineteen ninety-two.
Dina’s father, the big David, was inclined to skepticism which he openly showed in his squints and smirks. The sister was amazed and she was jealous. Of what? Victor made a little money delivering pizza in his old, rusty car, the bottom of which was corroded in many places forming holes; there was a piece of plywood under his feet so he would not fall through. Dina worked in a small beauty parlor doing nails, her one safeguard, and her little skill she was able to drum up as a survival kit for the future immigration in order to obtain her first job. As it turned out, she got stuck in this beauty business, gradually losing any hope of being a skilled professional again, her former university degree in art history, her aspirations, her tastes and sophisticated notions fading into thin air. Instead, she learned how to master the art of acrylic nails. She came home smelling of beeswax and nail polish, exhausted, pockets full of cash that Victor counted methodically. She relaxed on their brown faux leather coach, and her bare thighs became instantly sticky and clammy. Almost all their furniture in the house was either dragged from the streets or bought at the local yard sales.
Dina was nervous. She did not want her family to be here now. For the last few years she had been so lonely, wanted so much to have her people near, to share her life. Now they came to visit, but she was different; as it turned out, she had changed. And they, they had not changed at all. Also, she had to spend a good amount of time in the kitchen. It was summer, and the small garden next to her neighbor’s house—the only well-tended piece of land in the whole “village”—was lush with rhododendrons and other American plants. Her neighbor, a woman named Sharon, spent her weekends and nights in this small paradise. She toiled; she planted and weeded her garden. Sometimes she just relaxed with a book in a lounge chair. Tall, bronzed, big-boned Sharon would raise her face to the burning rays of the sun. From time to time she would wipe her brow, move her lovely head, throwing back her ashy, sun-bleached hair. From a frosty glass she sipped something cool, languidly smoked and sometimes showered her long tanned body with a garden hose, legs, torso, and hands—together with her precious plants. Dina glanced at her through the kitchen window, sighed and turned her Russian hamburgers, kotlety, over.
She liked Sharon. The woman was strong, uncomplicated, jolly and careless. The American seemed to her like a free, happy bird. Any minute she would rise, swing her wings and fly away.
At first, Victor was happy with the arrival of his father-in-law, and Dina was happy for him, but suspected what was coming next. After three weeks of shopping, of nonstop scrutiny of every item in every local department store and numerous expeditions to small consignment shops, several gifts—how could he say no to the old man who didn’t have any American money?—after hours of watching television in his company and acting as his personal interpreter, he became irritable. In the evenings, he usually went upstairs early. Dina became progressively more and more anxious. At night, she did not sleep so well. She tossed and turned and her husband’s grubbing hands weren’t welcome (he was of course asleep, but his automatic response was to touch, and stroke, and probe). She got up and walked quietly through the house, anticipating tomorrow, trying to enjoy her space; but her father slept in the living room, snoring and making some other strange noises. Her sister took over the nursery, David’s tiny room. They had to move his bed into the master bedroom, and he did not like it. Poor David, spoiled rotten by his grandpa and Auntie Vera—with rich Russian chocolates, and cuddles, and fuss, and baby talk—his schedule upset, his temper unbearable, turned into a hyper mini-monster. He was running around, almost naked, in his diapers and undershirt, up and down the stairs; he jumped out of the house, dashed back in; he slammed the flimsy doors and yelled, tormenting the tight inner space of the house. The visitors, it seemed, looked the other way, as if they didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. They perpetually asked questions and criticized everything: America, Russia, humidity, and stupid television shows.
Walking through the house, thinking her little anxious thoughts, Dina craved some activity, her hands tight in the suffocating space of the sleeping house. What to do? What should be done? The dishes were washed, the laundry sorted; there was nothing, nothing at all. Her sleeping Vic, the fool, he was happier in his own silly way, he slipped into the world of his own making, building his castles in thin air, escaping. And what about her? What did she have besides this family, her son, her unquiet self? What did she have that separated her from everything else? Or rather, what did she have that allowed her to suffer through her separation?
Once, at sunset, when the dishes had been already washed, Dina came to the open front door for some cool evening air. Through the fine door screen she peered into the darkness. The late summer twilight had already fallen; the sun was setting into the river; and the drabness of the “village” wasn’t visible. The sweet scent of summer overwhelmed her with a smell of flowers and greenery. She heard voices from the far ends of the “village,” perhaps, teenagers were at the playground again; a dog’s woof came from someplace, another dog replied in a drawling barking retort. All these came from that sweet summer dusk …
Dina stood in the doorway, her hands wrapped in the edge of her apron. Delicious coolness and tranquility was flowing into the house; the darkness was spellbinding. It was strange for her to stand there like this. From the neighbor’s garden came Sharon’s voice; it sounded relaxed and slow—she made out her silhouette in the darkness and called out.
Excerpt from THE DATE
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The coffee house where she had agreed to meet the American was a semicircular building with a glass wall that curved alongside the triangular landing facing the street. The shop’s smart new-age owners had fenced in the space with some plants in pots connected by heavy metal chains. Previously, it had been a car dealership; hence the glass wall was meant to display various cars. Nowadays the place was known for its tasty scones, breads and upscale—that is expensive—varieties of international coffees.
It was a sunny, breezy day, and all the tiny round coffee tables placed outside for the occasional spell of warm weather were taken, occupied by Cambridge’s trendy crowd. The public that usually gathered here was varied, in a way it could be varied only here, near Central Square. Students and faculty from Harvard, MIT, and Radcliffe, people dressed in gay outfits, or the inverse: clothes intentionally bleak, as if faded or washed out, girls in long skirts and army boots. A lot of these boys and girls (even some of the middle-aged women) had tattoos or piercings: three or four earrings whimsically framing the rim of the ear. There were same-sex couples, small groups, lone customers, chatter and laughter—a fanciful medley of languages and styles. In the very heart of strictly conservative New England, even the air here poured into the lungs with an easy leisure of surprising freedom.
Marina had parked her car at the curb of the nearby grocery store, crossed the street, and walked along the semi-circular glass wall of the bakery. A group of young men sitting by the window caught her eye. Were they Lebanese or Pakistani? She kept on walking and passed them feeling their eyes on her back. The only table inside the bakery that wasn’t occupied stood right next to the glass wall or rather the huge window that was partially taken down due to the warm weather. Later, when she had ordered her coffee and sat down with her cup at the available table, her peripheral vision continued to register the group on the other side of the glass. That was when her face started to go numb or, maybe, she was turning into a stone, losing the feeling on her left side, the one that was nearest to the window—her temple, the left side of her face, her neck, her left shoulder, and then all the way down to her left foot with her frozen toes—in an appallingly swift fashion. The only thing that stood between her and them was this thick glass. Looking for distraction, Marina remembered to open her purse. She then took out her paperback with an angelic-looking woman on the cover. On the other side of the window, all sorts of cars were driving by. People were moving in and out, squeezing past her little table, looking for empty seats. She tried to read, but the printed words did not register. With a nervous sigh she moved her book away and turned around to look at the counter where some few people were standing in line. This one? No, not him. He’s just standing there, reading his newspaper. Next to him nestled a short young woman with surprisingly brightly colored green hair.
When Marina’s coffee was almost finished, she placed the book back in her purse. Yesterday, for almost forty minutes, she had been on the phone with her kind-of-friend or maybe just acquaintance, Jacob, discussing the complicated logistics of the American style of dating. He enthusiastically elaborated on the topic of first date, ruling out any possibility that you can go out for a dinner date right away. The person might think that you’re just interested in a free meal. They also talked about the miserable dating situation for men in this culture. Jacob felt that straight men were on a losing end. They discussed how you are supposed to dress when going out on a date. Marina was wearing her black jeans. She had pushed and squeezed, taking a long, long time. And the zipper, the zipper she had to fasten by pulling it all the way up while lying on her back. She was wearing a heavy raincoat. On top she had wrapped a shawl, twisting it around her shoulders; a woolen Russian shawl with tassels, a babushka that she had brought with her from Russia seven years ago. Looking at her reflection in the mirror that morning, she actually liked what she saw, even enjoyed the view. But now, in the bright light, in the midst of this urban crowd, the shawl seemed to emit the air of Russia, the misery of immigration, ghetto, even provincialism; as if she was some kind of character out of an old book, someone who just disembarked from a boat into American life, coming here straight from her remote shtetl.
He entered the café walking with a straddling gate like a veteran sailor; his dark curly mop was long overdue for a cut. His tweed jacket with its suede elbow patches was probably meant to denote some kind of spiritual freedom and a certain degree of intellectualism. Marina gasped and then held her breath—on his bare feet he wore sandals akin to flip-flops with ugly thick straps around his big toes.
First, he ordered his coffee, and then he looked around, spotted Marina, raised his bushy left brow and slightly nodded. According to Debbie, he worked as a programmer; he was divorced, divorced for many years now. She knew that he had two kids who lived with their mother in a different state; she also knew that his children came to Boston every summer to live with him for two or three months.
He said, “Hi there.”
Marina said, “Hello.”
He said, “Nice day.”
Marina nodded. He sat at the table across from her.
He said, “You look Russian.”
All of a sudden Marina was terribly annoyed. She untwisted her warm woolen scarf, unbuttoned the top button of her coat and asked:
“And now? Do I still look Russian to you now?”
He carefully looked her over, her haircut, her coat, her white face, and then said: “Now you look as if your mother came from Russia.”
But of course! “Your mother came from Russia!” Meaning, that she looks like a confused Russian country woman, a baba; that she doesn’t look like a Barbie doll, with her Vologodsky scarf, her brightly painted eyes, and her lonely immigrant’s thoughts.
“What does it matter? If I am Russian or if I am not Russian? … Why does it always matter?”
He didn’t say a word, and she kept her eyes down fixing it on her cold coffee that gleamed darkly in a generic white cup.
“… I am sorry. You have to excuse me … I didn’t want to … I didn’t mean, well … I’m not upset. It’s just … It’s not important, not important at all.
It is nice weather today, indeed.
He stated it positively, not excusing himself. He just dropped this sentence as if putting it on a table, “you’re right”.
“We, Americans, we’re so terribly ignorant. In Europe, people speak two, three languages; and we don’t even know English well. You, by the way, speak English beautifully. Really, my grandparents came from Russia … no, wait … I think my grandfather came from Lithuania.”
“From Lithuania? From what town?”
“I don’t even know. I guess that’s embarrassing that I know so little.”
Marina had an urgent need to ease the tension of this pointless conversation. She reached for her purse, turned to look at the people sitting nearby, and then looked toward the entrance. A very young person was just coming into the bakery. He had a bored expression on his face, which didn’t match the bright orange color of his hair. Was it a guy or a girl? What’s your problem, young man—if you’re man, why are you so unhappy? Since you’ve already done it, you’ve got to walk around happy if you’ve gone and died your hair that color. A girl whose figure resembled a number eight accompanied the guy-girl with orange hair. She was wearing a cropped, slim-fitted army-style jacket and her long beige shorts stopped just above her knees. Her legs, which protruded from shorts in a pillar-like fashion, were knobby and covered in dimples and veins. Marina shuddered. And she is walking around smiling like anything, as though it didn’t matter … And look at that—she even came with a guy. Or was it a girl? And here I am, sitting like an idiot, suffering.
“So, did you say that you have a daughter?” The torture went on and on. “How old is she?”
Boring, how boring, all of these, this talk of nothing. Sitting vis-à-vis, squinting because of the sunlight that’s pouring through the glass; leaning over the table—and staring intently at her with his dark eyes that seem simultaneously lazy and indifferent. Outside, it’s practically winter still. Just this past Wednesday, it was still snowing—and this guy is wearing these terrible sandals (she thought “slippers,” the way her mother might say) on his bare feet.
“So, how do you like this country?” he asked lazily, looking through the window.
Oh, well, grind out your tune; you are my music box, my lovely street organ. Couldn’t you make up something new, something not so … trite or … how do they say it here? Well-worn? Well-loved? And why do you always have to ask the same thing? Why can’t you figure out how to talk to us? Or, maybe, these Americans really are as obtuse as they say? As if America was a woman he’d slept with, and he is asking his buddy: Well, and what do you think, how does she seem to you? How was it for you? Not bad, huh?
“Country? The country is all right.”
“All right? That’s all? Everything is probably very different here. You had to learn a lot of new things, didn’t you? Since you came here, right?”
“Not just learn, but had to forget a lot as well.”
“Perhaps you are right. Can I offer you anything? Coffee? Did you have your coffee already? Maybe you would like something else? No? Nothing?”
Excerpt from TOGETHER
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The bus stops often. The woman in the red jacket looks out of the window. “Did you ever try to leave?” she asks.
“I did,” she says, “once.”
The bus suddenly moves, as in a jump, and then stops again. The snowplows are in front and behind them. They come to a complete stop. Nobody leaves the bus, but they feel a gust of cold air. Then the doors are closed, and they are moving again.
The woman says, “Don’t torture yourself. Sometimes I think that there are just accidents. Things happen. They say that there are no accidents; that everything happens for a reason. But you know. I think it’s like in a family, just like a parent—the Universe is cruel and inattentive sometimes, sort of random. Chaotic. Otherwise, how can you explain everything?”
She nods. She sighs. She shrugs her shoulders.
“Look, who do you think survives better? People like me. We are like mice. We exist in clusters. They call it “community” here. You know, I used to feel so damaged. I didn’t feel whole. And now, I’m free. Listen, when we were together, I needed him. We were a couple; we had that kind of togetherness that creates a whole.”
He loved her, she knew that. He was gentle, and kind; but she still saw it, the dark sky and his laughing face. He kept on saying, “Wait, just wait, it will feel good soon…you will like it…wait, girl…ooh…sweet girl!” … She wanted to cry, but she didn’t cry. Her dress—he tore it all up and he crushed her breasts. She had bruises on her stomach, hands, and on her chest; they weren’t fading, for days.
Afterward, resting on his back, he looked into the sky and smoked. She tried to crawl away, but he pulled her back and hugged her. She lay there frozen, tense as a wire. After that he took her home. They were creeping in the dark, by narrow lanes and alleys. Then they came to her bedroom’s window. He nudged her; she flinched, but started to climb. He went after her, and that is when she flared up with rage. She hit him with a flowerpot, on his fingers which were grabbing the windowsill. He laughed and jumped down.
Next morning he was back there, at her house. He had come to see her mother, had come to meet her. He was laughing and cracking jokes. Mama sat in her chair without touching its back, erect. Aunt Faya came to visit, and she liked him.
“See, you say Universe…Do you mean God? Do you mean…Anyway, I am saying I must be a freak, don’t you think? How do you live with it? How did I manage to have a life after that? You’re saying that there no accidents. Do you think that I meant to live a different life? If this thing happened to me, it means I know something nobody else does. But this kind of knowledge, do you think that it hurts you and wounds you and cripples you so you become this poor soul on the outskirts of life? You think that the choices are up to us or are they? And who is God? What is God? And is really He present in my daily life? I want to believe that He is there. Maybe.
“And I don’t know if He is really concerned with me. Or is it us, me, myself who is concerned with Him? I do want to believe…But would my faith make me weaker? Do I fight? Do I surrender? And what if I do? What does it change? The American way is to believe that I should fight and surrender at the same time. How is it possible?”
Excerpt from TRANSCENDING THROUGH THE GAP
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To be a writer is not just one thing. It is countless different things.
To think as a writer. To aspire to be one.
To construct in your head. To watch. To collect and to put aside. To wait for the moment. Always alone.
Alone is a blessing and a curse. These are the dialectics of a writer’s life.
Is it about fame? Love? Recognition? Is it about writing for one’s own sake?
To be read by those you admire.
To be a part of something. To measure and to be measured.
There is also another side to this story. It has something to do with worlds and words.
And then, there is also your way of being.
Living in a bubble, running from life to use every single irritating thing in your memory to utilize it in your own reality.
Excerpt from A CROWD OF ONE’s OWN
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It is an open secret that we all write for one’s own crowd, being it a crowd of two or a crowd of many. Margarita Meklina, undeniably, has a crowd of her own. Her Russian reader is on a younger side, exposed, rebellious and marginal. I also suspect that her reader is bilingual, as the writer is bilingual herself. And now I am wondering who is her new American (or just English-speaking) reader might be.
If a writer is fluent in more than one language, the unexpected becomes the norm. The unexpected and the fluid. Because this fluidity is a byproduct of multilingual ability. Why? Maybe the mere juxtaposition of languages and ways of perceiving—and the lens becomes almost undetectable. Clear, clearer, invisible.
STALIN’s DAUGHTER (Short Story). Translated from Russian by Terry Myers.
Excerpt from STALIN’s DAUGHTER
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“What, I’m supposed to make a decision now, today?” And she suddenly started to cry. “My entire life’s been like this… My entire life! Do you understand, my entire life! They shot Papa in ’37. And then, wherever you poke your face, you’re an enemy of the people. He was an enemy of the people, and I was the daughter of an enemy of the people.” She took my hand and looked me dead in the eyes. It seemed she had calmed down and was simply passing on very important information about herself to me, what was most essential. “If you wanted this job, it was forbidden to you, you’re the daughter of an enemy of the people. You go here, you go there, and again you’re the daughter of an enemy of the people. There was nothing to eat, there was always nothing to eat. We lived for three and a half months in a chiffonier, in a wardrobe cabinet – on the street. And then there was the war…” I interpreted and my head was completely spinning. After all, we’d only come to Tereza’s to talk about the bedbugs.