Every once in a while, the people you love manifest themselves to you

Maybe it will be a girl who steps into the subway car on Zamoskvoretskaya line – still a good number of stops before you have to change onto the red line at Okhotny Ryad, so you have enough time to study her face.

She’ll have Yaroslava’s dark-blonde hair, and her eyebrows will arch at similar angles. There will be nothing tragic, though, about the way she purses her lips – the lower one slightly plumper than the upper, also familiar.

You’ll think to yourself that Yaroslava completed her education in Moscow. She’s a classically trained pianist, just as it was planned all along. She supplements her income with lessons – no more than twice a week, though, she told you recently that she’s getting a little tired of the fact that half the kids have such bad manners. They’re not interested in music, she says. It’s the parents who would like their daughter to come out during a lull at the dinner party, and play the freaking Moonlight Sonata as if no one in that gathering hasn’t heard it a hundred thousand times before.

Yaroslava married a fellow musician. He comes from outside Lviv and teaches full time – it makes financial sense. They’ve been renting a one-bedroom flat near Aeroport metro since before you came to Moscow. Like her sister Solomia and like your father, her uncle, Yaroslava collects fridge magnets from different cities and countries. It annoys her husband a little, and he always makes a show of this annoyance every time you come over after you have traveled, saying that he’d hoped that this stupid plastic thing with a beer mug stamped with the word “Bavaria” would have fallen out of your pocket just this one time. “But it’s wooden! Hand-carved!” Yaroslava will protest as she takes your coat.

Your boyfriend thinks that Yaroslava is beautiful. He takes pictures of the two of you – at the kitchen, below the one lightbulb that’s always going out, on the couch – the one that Solomia sleeps on when she flies in. Yaroslava has gotten more beautiful with age, and she’s grown her hair out too. Now, as before, in a village by Uzhgorod, it very nearly reaches her trim waist. “Mermaids,” your boyfriend will say over the click of the camera. You laugh. Yaroslava doesn’t. She knows she really is a mermaid. It’s one of her secrets.

On the weekends, when it’s colder, you offer to make mulled wine. You stir in a shot and a half of cognac. You peel oranges and eat them and throw the skins in. Yaroslava makes her chocolate walnut cake. Her husband will come in and kiss the top of her head while she’s in the middle of her undertaking and this will make her spill the sugar. Dakhabrakha will play on the stereo. There will be snow falling soundlessly outside.

After a few glasses of mulled wine, Yaroslava’s husband will be ready to argue about Stepan Bandera and Viktor Yuschenko. You’ll make a big deal out of covering your ears and escaping to the landing.

After Yaroslava drags you back, her husband would have taken out the violin. Your boyfriend will pretend as though he doesn’t want to hear you sing.

In order to get you to stop pouting, she’ll agree to sing something that would appeal to your mother’s side of the family.

“He is killed, he’s lying unburied,
In a foreign country.

Here comes, here comes with a spade
A merciful man.

He has buried, buried into one grave
Two-hundred and forty people.

He has put a cross, an oaken cross
And has written on it:

Here lie, lie heroes from the Don;
Glory to the Don Cossacks.”

You’ll look into each others eyes as you sing. Like you’re used to doing. You’ll remember that winter long ago, in Ukraine, when an actor you had been seeing raised his eyebrows in surprise as he heard your voice come out of your chest and join the other voices, as if it had always been this way intertwined with them.


The girl you don’t know will come out at the next station, and you’ll breathe a sign of relief, because she hadn’t noticed you staring. Maybe she really is a musician. Or an actress. Maybe she works at the bank. She might have two children, or none at all.

By the time you’ve walked down the corridor and made the switch to the red line, you’re once again mostly reconciled to the fact that your cousin is gone.

8 thoughts on “Every once in a while, the people you love manifest themselves to you

  1. Absolutely heartbreaking. This made me cry. Grief has a way of fooling you. You start thinking that the pain has dulled, has become more manageable. And then just as you start breathing again, it comes back just as heavy as before. I am sorry you lost your sister. I say sister, because let’s face it, us Slavs don’t have cousins.

  2. About halfway through reading this, I emerged, pondering about good writing and how some people make it seem so effortless, that reading their words is like eating a delicious meal.

    Then I immersed myself again, happily peeking though the window until that last paragraph and now I’m crying too. May your sister/cousin rest in peace until you meet her again.

  3. I’m with Natalie; this is a beautiful piece of writing – when you stretch out, you certainly have the chops.

    Thoreau is credited with having asked, “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eye for an instant?” Empathy, not sympathy, allows us to see for a moment what you see – to remember what we never saw, and to ache with you for what we never knew.

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