Monthly Archives: June 2013

Chapter 2

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(If you haven’t read yesterday’s post, you may want to start there).

Well, never mind, that’s the way we are destined,
Such is our fate: now we feast, now we fight…
Don’t give up hope, hold it out, maestro,
Keep meditating and feeling inspired.

Somewhere around our last destination,
Maybe we’ll thank our fate anyway…

From “Mozart,” by Bulat Okudzhava

Nadya was flying, a glowing firebird illuminating the streets of Moscow with her gorgeous plumage. It had rained while she had been in the hotel, and moonlight now shimmered in puddles spread out before her like scattered, glittering black diamonds. It was exhilarating to be a part of this fulsome beauty, this moment of exquisite perfection. Never had Nadya felt more intoxicated than she did now, drunk on nothing but the wondrous, miraculous fact of existence.

Her feet began to hurt and she slowed to a walk. Her own glorious act of self-determination deeply moved her, almost to tears. In an instant, the veil had suddenly been torn away and she could appreciate the immense magnitude of the untapped potential within her, just waiting to burst into flower. (A lush tropical flower, not like these ghastly marigolds someone had crammed so artlessly into a planter she was passing, “Why bother?” she thought). She had been the one chosen by the prince (albeit a homely prince, but never mind), out of hundreds of hopeful princesses. She remembered with sincere pity all those women and their blatant grasping, their faces so clearly marked with such naked desperation. And what had she done? She’d tossed it all away, ground it under her heel, and disappeared into the night. The frog prince, who had searched for and miraculously found her at long last in a far distant land, was probably still standing there open-mouthed, peering into the dark night, and wondering why on earth his beloved had run off so precipitously. She closed her eyes, breathed deeply of the air made fresh by the light rain that had fallen, and felt herself being lifted off the ground.

The heel of her shoe had caught on a crack in the pavement, and as it snapped off, she lost her footing. The sensation of being airborne was immediately replaced by the sickening sensation of falling as she hurtled toward the sidewalk. She managed to break her fall with her hands, but landed hard on her hands and knees. She found herself staring into a puddle that from this uncomfortably close distance was no black diamond, but just a shallow pool of muddy water marbled with grease. The moonlight shuddered in the puddle and then became still again, backlighting her contorted face.

She picked herself up off the ground and stared down first at her scraped, throbbing hands, and then down at ther bloodied knees and ripped pantyhose. She headed toward the subway station, reviewing her night, her life, her place in the universe as she hobbled along, holding the broke heel of her shoe in one hand.

On the one hand, fate had always seemed to indulge her in all kinds of ways. She recalled Borya’s words when he tried to seduce her in the basement of the hotel. “Devushka! Fate has lavishly bestowed upon you the gifts of beauty, grace, and a sensitive soul!” he had said with a rakish grin and his meaty hand on his chest. “I want to worship you.” She was shocked and embarrassed to see him actually lower himself to one knee. “Princess, don’t deny me. Let’s go to a bar after you get off work.” And though she would bet that princesses generally did not hang out in bars, she had gone.

Of course she didn’t take Borya’s buffoonery seriously, but she knew that she was a pretty, maybe even a beautiful woman. She knew she carried herself well, and Borya had certainly spoken the truth when he had said that she had a sensitive soul. But while it may have been true that she had been given these gifts, it was also true that a petty, spiteful hand always snatched these things away from her. Every good thing in her life was or would eventually be tainted or ruined. Could she never be granted one lousy moment of sublime, unadulterated glory?

The insidious pattern had been in place from the very beginning. Take the resplendent head of golden hair that she had been born with: the stuff of fairytales. It was the pride and joy of her mother, who used to finger the strands lovingly, maybe even a little bit enviously. The color changed so gradually that it came as a shock when she was thirteen, to be corrected by her teacher as she filled out a school form listing herself as blonde. Marina Sergeevna pointed her hateful sausage finger at the line on her paper as she stalked past her desk and said, “brunetka.” This pronouncement, though delivered in a flat tone of voice, still managed to convey disapproval, scorn, and absolute, incontestable authority. Nadya ran back to her apartment that afternoon and had rushed to the mirror hung in the entryway. It was true. Her hair was a muddy brown. But Nadya refused to think of herself as a brunette, and that very day, she reclaimed her golden locks at the drugstore. Because this was the kind of woman she was and always had been: a strong woman who decided for herself who she was. But why must she be constantly thwarted at every turn?

Her figure was another good example. Even after giving birth to her daughter, she had quickly and effortlessly regained the slender physique she had always been blessed with. But what did it matter, when it was hidden by that hideous navy blue, shapeless housecoat she was required to wear as her cleaner’s uniform? She might as well wear a burlap sack. What was the point of making any effort at all, when the only ones who ever saw her were the louts on the bus and subway and her own mother and daughter? What good were her lovely, elegant hands when they were sheathed in industrial rubber gloves and forced to scrub toilets all day long?

Nadya was at the subway station now. She rode the long escalator down and waited for the next train. Mercifully, at this late hour, it was almost empty and she gratefully sank into a seat. She closed her eyes and continued to muse.

Nadya had always been proud of having what she considered a heightened aesthetic sensibility. And she was fairly sure she wasn’t the only one who was aware of this gift. Hadn’t Lena always consulted her about how to wear her hair, what clothes to wear, how to apply her makeup? She had diligently given that little mouse of a girl the best possible advice to enhance what little she had to work with, poor soul. And look! It worked! It was almost inconceivable that Lena should be married before she was, but it was in fact the case. True, her husband was a bit of an oaf, really. But Nadya knew that Lena was delighted, and she sincerely tried to be happy for her.

How Nadya envied those Mexican soap opera stars. She felt that with the smallest amount of effort, she too could be a vision of loveliness. But what was the point, when she didn’t have the money to buy the things she needed to create the enchantment? What was the point when there was no one to appreciate the magic wrought by her hand? She could be, should be living in an oasis of beauty, and not in a tiny squalid communal apartment filled with exactly the same cheap furniture and pictures cut out of magazines that were to be found across the hall, down the hall, and in the apartments above and below. Her natural gifts, her talents, her very essence were all being squandered in this tedious existence.

She suspected that if only she could have been born with a less sensitive soul, she would be so much happier. If she didn’t have the ability, no, the visceral need to experience the finer things in life, being constantly surrounded by boors, synthesized music, cheap perfume, all this would not be such a daily assault to her senses. Better not to have a glimpse of the good life at all, if fate insisted on slamming the door in your face once you’d seen all that could never be yours. It was all right for the other women with whom she worked. Homely Alla Arkadevna would be content with whatever meager crumbs fell onto her plate. She truly envied this sometimes.

Nadya got out at the station and made her way to the bus stop to begin the next leg of her journey home. She groped around in her purse to find her bus pass, and pulled out the From Russia with Love brochure she had shoved in there. She idly leafed through it as she waited for her bus, and saw that a schedule of events for the rest of the romance tour weekend had been inserted into the brochure. Tomorrow was Saturday and they had scheduled a sightseeing tour. All interested parties were to show up in the lobby of the hotel at 9 am. From there, two busses would take them around Moscow. It was exactly what you’d expect…honestly, had these people no imagination at all? Red Square was at the top of the list, of course. St. Basil’s Cathedral, the Armoury, the Patriarch’s Palace and the State Kremlin Palace, Lenin’s Tomb, a stop for lunch, and then finally – the Tretyakov Gallery at two. Those poor unsuspecting American men would be dragging themselves back to their hotel on bloody stumps after all that hoofing around town.

The bus now lumbered up to the stop and Nadya limped up the steps. She took her seat and began compiling a mental shopping list. They needed more beets, onions, cucumbers, potatoes, tomatoes, dill, milk, cheese…She would go to the market with her mother and Olya in the morning to restock the pantry, as she always did on Saturdays. How prosaic it all was. She really must not let herself drown in this quagmire of dull routines and sleepy days.

It had been difficult today, but for one brief shining moment she had had a vision of her true self. She was a beautiful, strong (but feminine), cultured woman. She would not be cowed into submission by that sly prankster fate. She resolved to devote the morning to the necessities, but to indulge herself in the afternoon. She considered her options. Should she go to the sauna? It was always so crowded on Saturdays, and filled with fat, old, naked babushkas beating each other silly with their birch rods. No. Definitely not the sauna. Perhaps Lena might go to a movie with her. But then again, she’d probably want to drag Misha along. Never mind.

The brochure had reminded her that it had been ages since she’d been to an art museum. She tried to remember when she had been last…Was it possible that she hadn’t been since grade school when her class had gone to the Pushkin Museum on a field trip? Art was just the thing she needed. It would inspire her, lift her out of her funk. Tomorrow, she would visit the Tretyakov Gallery.

And that’s all she wrote. Not sure where I’m going with this, if anywhere at all…If you’ve gotten this far: thanks for reading and have a wonderful weekend!

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From Russia With Love

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Thirteen years ago, I wrote a short story about a Russian woman who signs up with an international matchmaking agency. I’ve thought about turning the story into the first chapter of a novel, but never got past the second chapter. Maybe I can spend the next decade of my life writing the next two chapters?!

Nadya applied a thick coat of vermilion to her lips. She turned her head slowly from side to side to check that each bleached strand was in place. The contrast with her dark roots, she felt, was appealing in a dramatic sort of way. She puckered her lips and gave herself a smoldering look in the mirror before snorting at her own foolishness and leaving the bathroom.

In the kitchen her mother was sitting with Olya, who picked listlessly at her potatoes.

“Mama, take me with you,” she cried when she spotted her mother in the doorway.

“Eat your dinner, Olenka,” Nadya said. She leaned down to give her a loud kiss, aimed an inch away from her daughter’s cheek. “I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”

Her mother gazed at her wearily and looked as if she was about to say something. Before she could begin Nadya said, “I’ll be back late. Don’t wait up for me,” and she set off for the bus stop.

The event was being held in one of the large hotels in the center of Moscow and to get there Nadya had to take a bus and then the subway. As usual, she had to fight her way onto the bus. It was one thing to be pinned on all sides by aggressively large and sweaty bodies when she took the bus to and from her job at the hotel, where she worked as a chambermaid. But now, in her carefully ironed white blouse and short black skirt, she seethed as shapeless old women with their string sacks full of onions and potatoes and malodorous men with their boozy breath swayed into her, kneading her flesh with every lurch.

When she finally arrived at the subway station a few blocks away from the hotel, Nadya was relieved to make her way out and onto the sidewalk. She began walking toward the hotel and paused at a store window to check her reflection once again. After a critical glance, she continued on, her ankles wobbling in her rarely-worn high heels.

In the lobby Nadya looked around uncertainly. A doorman gave her a bored look and nodded in the direction of the reception room. She wondered how he knew what she was there for and then she saw that the lobby was filled with hundreds of thickly made-up women dressed in their very best clothing. Nadya was offended that the doorman automatically took her for one of these overly eager, overly-made-up, probably desperate women. She assumed her haughtiest expression and walked slowly past him, and in the direction of the gift shop. When she realized he was not paying the slightest attention to her, she rejoined the herd moving toward the  reception room.

A line began to form as the women entered the cavernous, dimly-lit room and were asked to fill out a name tag. The music was playing so loudly that the tinny reverberations buzzed in Nadya’s ears. A large middle-aged woman with bad teeth and hennaed hair had to shout to be heard as she instructed the women to write out their names in English. An assistant helped those whose command of English was insufficient even for this task. Nadya had taken English in high school and could at least spell out her own name. She strained in the low light to search for a place to affix the tag. She decided to place it to the right, where she remembered there was a barely perceptible borscht stain. With this business taken care of, she began to survey the room and realized with dismay that there was about one man to every ten women.

And was this the best America had to offer? In all of the American movies she had seen, the men were impossibly attractive, with full manes of hair and perfect, blindingly white smiles. The men milling around this room were homely, middle-aged, pudgy specimens. They seemed, however, strangely undaunted by their thick spectacles, their thinning pates, their unprepossessing physiques. They strutted around the room like movie stars with half-suppressed grins, expressing a combination of lechery and disbelief at their own good fortune. Clutched in their moist palms, popping out of polyblend breast pockets, or stuffed into dank back pockets were booklets containing the photos and biographies of the scores of women who now swarmed hungrily around each of these bachelors.

Nadya’s picture and biography were there too. Nadya Tarakanova, 29 (well, she was 29 only a few months before she sent in her information), hospitality worker (this was true-ish), loves to read, watch movies, is looking for her own American prince to love and take care of. There was no mention of her daughter Olya. No need to scare off her prince with a fact that he would learn in due course, after falling passionately, hopelessly in love with her.

While she was laboring over her biography, soft-edged visions of this man had flitted across her field of vision. He was tall and slim. His gentle eyes lingered on hers longingly, adoringly. Sometimes his hair was blonde, sometimes it was jet black. She would take either, as long as it was full, neatly cut, and washed. His rose petal lips would brush against her so tenderly, so lovingly…He would treat her right. Everyone knew that American men were real gentlemen. In short: he would be the very antithesis of Olya’s father.

Nadya had met Borya in the basement office of the hotel in which she worked. She had been heading for the cleaning closet to get her supplies. He was replacing an overhead light that had burnt out. As she walked by, he had called to her from atop a ladder. She swished past him with her eyes fixed straight ahead. A minute later he caught up with her. He was short and had unusually long, muscular arms covered with thick black fur. The simian effect was heightened by his full lips, which now spewed a torrent of extravagant compliments.

Nadya had been tired of sitting at home with her mother every night. Her closest friend Lena had just gotten married and always made excuses now when she would call to invite her to go out as they had in the past. And so when Borya with his easy shameless charm begged Nadya to meet him the next day, she recklessly agreed.

Their relationship limped along until one evening when Boris arrived at her apartment staggering and bellowing like a crazed bull. Nadya’s mother warned her not to open the door, but she disregarded her advice and had let Borya in. She was rewarded with a black eye and a bruised jaw. Nadya’s mother managed to bring down a heavy frying pan over Borya’s head and he lay groaning and subdued on the floor of the apartment until the police came and hauled him off to a sobering station. It had been two weeks since their first encounter in the cafeteria. She would never see Borya again, except in the dark eyes of their daughter Olya, who was born nine months after their first date.

Now Olya was four. During the day Nadya’s mother looked after the child. When Nadya arrived home, exhausted and irritable, they would eat dinner together and then turn on the television to watch Mexican soap operas. Olya would lean into her mother’s shoulder and would gravely watch the voluptuous brown-haired women in brightly colored dresses until it was her own bedtime.

Nadya despised this life. She despised the sinks full of dried flecks of phlegm, shaving cream and whiskers she had to scrape clean every day. She despised every soiled toiled she scrubbed angrily and half-heartedly. She detested every sheet heavy with perspiration and God only knew what else that she gingerly pulled at with only the tips of her fingers and a grimace on her face. She was young and not bad-looking and life owed her more than this.

It was Alla Arkadevna, her supervisor, who had first sniffed out the information about the predictably named: From Russia with Love. When Nadya heard the rumor that Alla Arkadevna was applying to an American matchmating service she had only a few moments to ponder scornfully the ridiculous prospect of this last-ditch attmept at love by an over-the-hill hag, when she was suddenly, violently seized with a sense of frantic urgency. She relentlessly pestered, wheedled, and cajoled Alla Arkadevna until she agreed to giver her the information about how to apply. In the end, Alla Arkadevna’s application was rejected. When Nadya asked her if she would be going to the first in a series of “romance tour” matchmaking parties, Alla Arkadevna informed her with great dignity that she had decided to withdraw her application. She had heard certain things about these types of organizations, she intimated darkly. Nadya had snickered inwardly at this transparent lie and had swirled away from Alla Arkadevna like a helium balloon borne up by a strong gust of wind.

Now as she joined the milling throng, all the fierce triumph that had buoyed her up for the past month drained out of her. She looked dully at the group closest to her. One woman was playing the ingénue, smiling shyly at the man, all the while keeping her elbows as rigid as irons to keep the rest of the women at bay. Over the general chatter Nadya could hear another woman loudly and incessantly asking him what he liked to eat. Other women impatiently jostled their way closer to the epicenter. With mild curiosity Nadya craned her neck to see the prized object of their attention. She watched in fascinated horror as the wide-eyed, pencil-necked, gap-toothed scrap of a man doled out a nod here, a world of acknowledgement there.

She felt unloved, unbeautiful, uninspired, unhopeful. And suddenly she realized that his eyes had met hers. He was looking speculatively at her and inching towards her, doing his best to disengage from the clutching hands that insistently pulled at his lapels.

Nadya’s mind teemed with a flood of images. She saw the exquisitely dressed and coiffed actresses from imported Dallas episodes languidly sitting by a pool sipping exotic drinks. She thought of the page she had ripped from an American magazine fished out of a wastebasket at the hotel and taped to her mirror at home. She was fairly sure it was an advertisement for perfume with the beautiful name “Summer’s Eve.” A woman with long flowing hair blown by a gentle breeze walked barefoot in the sand. And then the blurry image of this woman’s face cleared and became her mother’s. It was sallow and careworn. Olya’s eyes rimmed with dark blue half-moons replaced her mother’s. And now she saw her own eyes. But this time she saw them reflected back at her from the glint of the man’s glasses. He had broken through the crowd and had made his way to her. The other women still tried to distract him, to lure him from this folly. He was their prince. He was to whisk them away from the squalor and banality of their existence.

He was saying something, but Nadya could not hear him. She was not listening. She stared transfixed by the image of herself in his glasses. She was a gazelle. She was a dragonfly. She tripped out of the room and out of the hotel. She was still wobbling on her heels, but almost running, almost flying in the crisp moonlit night.

Dad’s Books

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My dad has been losing his vision to diabetic retinopathy. He can no longer drive. He misjudges distances and he sometimes stumbles. Worst of all: his ability to read has been seriously compromised. He has consulted with specialists on two different continents. He’s had laser treatments and injections. He has bought pair after pair of new glasses in the hopes of improving his vision enough to be able to read again with ease. He has tried reading on the Kindle and the iPad without success. Lately, he has decided he will no longer seek available treatments.* Still, every morning he spends a couple hours hunched over his beloved books with a powerful magnifying glass, laboriously trying to make out the letters, which stubbornly, traitorously remain blurry.

My dad has suffered terrible losses in his life. His father died when he was just a child. He lost siblings to the privations imposed by war and invasions. He has always lived modestly, never indulging himself in anything other than the books that are his treasure. He would think nothing of giving away cars, furniture, clothing, before each of our many moves, but his ever growing collection of books always went with us across continents and oceans. Despite my mother’s vociferous objections, he would not be parted with these. When we finally settled down in Virginia, he built his own bookshelves and filled them with his cherished volumes of Heidegger, Machiavelli, and Kant. He lovingly fashioned suede covers to rebind his most cherished books that were literally read to pieces.

My husband, a scholar who appreciates the same kind of literature, was perusing my father’s bookshelf one day when he suddenly burst out laughing. He had spotted my dad’s copy of Goats and Goatkeeping interspersed between two volumes of philosophy. On the bottom shelf was a space devoted to the inevitable porn stash every dad has hidden away somewhere. In my dad’s case, his porn consisted of many, many, well-thumbed issues of Dog World magazine. What can I say? His interests are wide-ranging.

When my parents moved back to Virginia after many years of living in Korea, they took stock of their belongings. Before they had left for Korea, they had a shed built in their backyard just to house my dad’s books. They never expected to be away for as long as they were. By the time they returned, the books had been languishing in the shed for over a dozen years. Some did not fare well. Mice had nibbled the pages of some. Others had suffered from water damage. I’m sure it broke my dad’s heart to discard these books. What he did with the ones that survived broke our hearts. To our shock and horror, he boxed up the vast majority of the books that he had collected over a lifetime and shipped them to the university in Korea where he had been working all those years, as a donation to the library.

My siblings and I had grown up with these books as the only constant part of our landscape. Many of them predated our own existence. To us, it was as if my dad was sending bits of himself away. It seemed like a surrender to old age and to his loss of vision, it seemed like a farewell to his life of scholarship. We said nothing to my father, but amongst ourselves, we mourned for all of these losses.

Now I realize that we needn’t have worried. Lately, every time I go to Arlington to visit my parents, my dad presses a piece of paper into my hands upon which he has scrawled in his illegible handwriting a list of the books he wants me to hunt down for him. Little by little he is replacing the books he regrets having shipped to Korea, the books that had to be discarded, and the books that are falling apart from overuse.

“And please try to find them in hardback so they’ll last longer,” my 78 year old father says in his quiet, gentle voice.

“Sure, Dad,” I say. As I hunt online for Summa Contra Gentiles by Saint Thomas Aquinas or Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy, I am filled with peace and joy.

*Just this month I was excited to read about a study that’s been going on at the University of Virginia. Researchers are investigating the promising use of stem cells to treat and perhaps even reverse the effects of diabetic retinopathy and are getting close to the clinical trial phase of their study.

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How very amusing!

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We had some friends of ours over for a dinner party on Sunday evening and for a postprandial divertissement we decided to listen to some classical music, because we’re super-cultured that way.

We put on an obscure concerto written by the Austrian composer, organist and master of musical theory and counterpoint Johann Georg Albrechtsberger (1736-1809). Albrechtsberger was well-known in his own day and had a number of illustrious pupils, including Ludwig van Beethoven. He succeeded Mozart as Kapellmeister of St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna.

OK, let’s get real: we had our friends over for takeout pizza. We did listen to classical music, and it had this effect…

What’s so funny? Listen to at least a little past the 1:00 minute mark:

Albrechtsberger was inspired to write his concerto, one of at least seven for the jew’s harp and strings, when Emperor Joseph II returned from his own coronation enthused by a performance he had heard in a monastery by a jew’s harp virtuoso. Albrechtsberger’s star has dimmed, but his concerto for jew’s harp and strings is still moving urbane sophisticates to tears to this day.

Weekend Snapshots 5

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We’ve had many family celebrations here over the years…

Peking GourmetThis unprepossessing restaurant in a sightly shabby strip mall in Falls Church, Virginia is a D.C. institution. The walls of Peking Gourmet Inn are covered with framed, signed photos of illustrious guests such as presidents, senators, and generals. The restaurant’s reputation rests on its Peking duck, brought whole to the table, expertly carved, and served in pancakes with scallions, cucumbers, and hoisin sauce. This weekend we noticed that one V.I.P. had been bumped from the most prominent spot on the wall in the lobby area for a far more important personage:

PSYYup. Psy.

Our family gathered there this Saturday for the first birthday celebration of my cousin’s daughter:

For the doljabi ceremony, she did a wardrobe change into the traditional hanbok first worn by her aunt and then by her cousin for their first birthday celebrations:

After lengthy deliberation…

…she finally decided upon:

The pen!

It was a lovely occasion:

Happy Birthday!

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