Monday Music: the Yaroslava Edition

I’ve been reading the excellent Phonogram. Thinking about music as a kind of amber that can preserve both the beautiful and the bloody.

In Kiev last week, I toook a break from Phonogramming away and met a friend for drinks comparatively late one night, then caught one of the newer marshrutkas home. Now this particular death-on-wheels (that’s how we call these little, overcrowded, squeaky mini-buses where you request your stop) took me on a route I haven’t traveled in some time, at least not after dark.

You can imagine the scraping and chafing against my heart, when I saw the bus stop that my cousin Yaroslava (1978 – 2005) used to walk me to whenever she saw me off in the evenings.

The streetlight was out overhead, and the little stretch of sidewalk looked forlorn, as if no women ever stood there, killing time before the bus, telling penis jokes and planning the rest of their lives. As if Yaroslava had never pressed the sole of her exquisite, stilleto-heeled boot against the pole, laughing and re-tying her laces.

It happened. And somewhere, it’s still happening today.

I pressed my head against the window, pretending to study the street, not wanting my fellow commuters to realize I was crying. Plenty of guys see a crying woman as an invitation – “let me fetch you a hankie/rub your shoulders/take you home to my parents’ flat as if you were a stray kitten, baby.”

I realized that I have no control over places, which, like seashells popping open to deliver your own departed Venus, suddenly manifest her to me – from a crowd or from behind a signpost, walking away rapidly, side of her face obscured by a mobile phone. It was a strange feeling; I wanted to shut my eyes, and I wanted to keep staring.

There was a burst of laughter in the marshrutka. Dudes my age or slightly older, making an obscene joke that somehow related back to a humiliating football defeat. I felt my iPod’s reassuring weight in my coat pocket, and fumbled with the earphones.

I have no control over places. Places run alongside the moving wheels for a while, and disappear around the bend. But I could still hold our music in my hand – the music we shared together, and the music that shared the first days and weeks following her death with me:

Under My Wing – Brainstorm
Metko – Gosti Iz Budushego
Iidu Do Domu – Okean Elzy
Dans Ma Memoire – In-Grid
Just for One Day – David Guetta
Upward Over the Mountain – Iron & Wine
It’ll All Work Out – Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
Till Kingdom Come – Coldplay
No Woman, No Cry – the Fugees
2HB – Venus in Furs

I used to go to bed in Durham, and, after briefly submerging myself in sleep, would jerk away suddenly (these little fits later inspired “Recall”), convinced that I had dreamt her death. And every time I woke up, I had to re-live the moment of realization. My only hope that over time, the sadness would get lighter and airier. Until that day came, I sobbed into the crook of Khaled’s arm, and put some music on.

Tom Petty I listened to because it was my sentence. The “Elizabethtown” soundtrack was genuinely something I punched myself with. But then the Fugees would come to replace it on the old playlist I made:

“My drink’s my only remedy, For pain of losing famiiily.”

Khaled took out his guitar, and we would do our own version. It gave a marmalade tinge to everything, that song.

I always tried to end up nightly musicapades with “2HB” off the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack, because it allowed me to get to sleep:

“Here’s looking at you, kid, hard to forget. Here’s looking at you kid, at least not yet. Your memory stays, it lingers ever. Will fade away never.”

Velvet Goldmine Poster

A song by a fictional band. A fiction within a fiction. I’d always preferred to see our lives as a kind of story we were telling ourselves (Reynolds Price later corrected that notion by pointing out that, according to Milton, we are a story that God is telling Himself). It was an illusion of absolute control – as fragile and precious as the idea that a person you love will still be there the next day. Not so, not so, said “2HB,” but it did so gently, like a warm, squeezing hand on the shoulder.

The first time I watched “Velvet Goldmine” was in my little room in Charlotte, with my friend Liz. We laughed about (what else?) Ewan McGregor’s penis. For me, at least, laughing at it at the very least disguised my fascination with the thing (although I was far from innocent, I’d never studied one at, um, length).

We gasped, or at least I gasped, when the narrator told us that

“For once, there was an unknown land, full of strange flowers and subtle perfumes; a land of which it is joy of all joys to dream; a land where all things are perfect and poisonous.”

It meant a lot of things, to a lot of different people, that line. Both Liz and I weren’t even born in the 1970’s, let alone the 1950’s (we haven’t got it into our heads to defy the laws of physics, not then, and not yet), but it meant something to us as well. It meant something to me, when I thought about the nights Yaroslava took me out dancing – the first time I had ever seen her turn music into a religious experience of ritualistic finery.

Those of us who loved Yaroslava still feel her presence at parties – talking about it plays out like something out of a bad movie, but here it is: when you’re wiping the sweat from the back of your neck after a particularly good song, THE song until the next THE song comes, you feel something I can only describe as a rush of champagne bubbles around your heart, and if there is someone there to talk to, you might lean over and say “Yasia’s here,” and they will understand, or they won’t.

If places can remember our dead, why not songs?

Yaroslava and I used to sing in her mother’s choir together. Well, she sang, I mostly made an ass out of myself – but I was small and cute and wore dresses with purple flowers, so I got away with it for a bit. Years later, we’d break into impromtu songs – on the escalator, on a park bench, at the aforementioned bus stop.

I remember riding somewhere, both of us hungover and arguing listlessly about Mariah Carey of all people, and me trying to get her to sing the chorus to this Russian version of a Zdob si Zdub song (featuring Garik Sukachev), because I liked the roughness of it and she kept wanting to float off and sing R & B. So few people ever let her float off in her own direction. She always did what everyone else wanted her to do: going to music school, quitting music school, letting some loser dance with her, letting her superior-minded, snappish cousin tell her what to sing. I feel guilty about that morning.

I feel guilty about lots of things.

I carry her around in my heart, and in my iPod and that’s the best I can do. Well, that, and putting up a freaking a capella version of “Always Be My Baby,” because it’s exactly the sort of thing she’d love to see me do on any website I had my name on:

I hope you’re laughing your ass off somewhere, Yaroslava.

5 thoughts on “Monday Music: the Yaroslava Edition

  1. Beautiful tribute to an obviously beautiful person. I notice that you write a lot about Yaroslava. A book on her is definitely in your future.

    Thank you for reminding me about Phonogram. You will probably be surprised, but like you I agree that it is excellent.

    I could start a rant about admiring penis or something else, but, in case this isn’t obvious in most cases I do admire your writing, Natalia. And I’m sorry for the loss your family suffered.

  2. Thanks, T.

    P.S. I’ve actually been offered an opportunity to write a play based around some of the elements I discuss here. I can’t really discuss details, but it’s a cool project, and I hope it works out.

  3. Nat, I remember I met you the year that Yaroslava died, and I’m hoping it won’t be presumptuous to talk about how much you changed. You took a horrible tragedy and worked through it to become a better, more sensitive, real grown-up kind of writer.

    There isn’t any sense to be made out of a horrible event like this one. When good people go before their time, or what we thing is their time, we don’t have recourse. It can’t be corrected. But if you remember them and try take whatever good they seeded around them while alive and not let it be extuinguished, you’ve done the best you can.

    I’m so sorry, girl, for your loss, and I know that this will be something that stays with you forever. As you are aware, we also lost Nicole to a stupid, stupid car crash. I couldn’t write a play about it, no skills in that area, but taking over some of her volunteering jobs was my way of saying “hey, everyone, remember Nicole, she was amazing.”

    So I agree with TabbyCat (for once) – write a book, write a play, or write something.

  4. Thanks, Lal. I don’t think you’re being presumptuous. I think these events always tend to change us – though whether it’s for better or for worse remains to be seen. I’m really sorry about Nicole. I haven’t forgotten.

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