When I was in high school, my friends and I feared the kind of ordinariness that could one be borne out of the boom of the 1990’s. The walls of our houses could only cave in on us in the metaphoric sense.
Because my parents had money during that period, I thought I had the following two choices in life: grow up to be great, or grow up to ride around in a minivan. It was the assumption one makes as a child in an upper-middle-class home: the idea that one would even have a set of unfashionable wheels to be miserable about.
But I didn’t imagine such future possibilities for myself because I’d never been poor – I’d just never been poor by Soviet standards. And America then seemed to be made of wealth, though I didn’t think of it as wealth, it was just how Things Ought To Be. The continent was made of rock and money.
In the colder months, the Big Dipper hung its ladle above the home of the retired Irish couple across the street. White Christmases were a bit hard to come by in North Carolina, but we did alright without them. I hung lights around the windows of my room year-round. When we first moved into our house, I picked the bedroom that faced the street and not the woods. Squirrels nibbled on the boxes in the attic and sneaked their way across our nightly dreams. A magnolia tree was planted in the mortgaged soil and flowered every spring – until the spring it didn’t. Everyone once in a while, I look up that house on Google Maps. I still remember the address and telephone number by heart. I think I will them until I die – unless (and I realize I always say this) dementia happens to me first (who says old age doesn’t have its perks?).
On Christmas Eve this year, Lev had trouble getting to sleep. His grandma was in town, so she picked him up and rocked him when he had an outright crying fit. I cracked the window open and curled up in my pajamas, listening to the wind whispering across the snow drifts. Every year in Moscow, some of the homeless will freeze to death, even during the warmest December in the last five years. At a time like this, you learn to be grateful for what you have.
Since leaving the old American home, my relationship with my mother has suffered. I suppose in a way, she has yet to accept the fact that I began living my own life, as opposed to living as an extension of her own hopes and dreams. She plays “gotcha” with me at every opportunity. Husband too tired to take baby out in his stroller? I married a lazy jackass. I take half a Saturday off to go to the banya and swim a few laps in the pool? Baby “is not living in a loving household” and must be taken away by his grandparents in order to ensure his survival.
This situation is made worse by the fact that my husband and I are currently renting a flat the approximate size of a matchbox (the family home is “too hot right now” – a.k.a. my mother’s dispute with the co-owners sluggishly continues, and there is no way I would want Lyovka to feel unsafe in his own home). Which is why I’m glad to be in our old apartment in Kiev at the moment, which is the sort of place where one can at least wander away from an argument.
Arriving to Kiev in the morning all bleary-eyed, Alexey and I collapsed on my old sofa bed without even bothering to fetch a blanket. Little Buddy slept between us in his blue fleece hoodie, so tired that he didn’t even need to be rocked. The cat wandered in and gave us a strange look – strange even by his standards, that is.
While we were waiting for a taxi at the train station, my father called to tell us that the heating had been turned off inside our building – a typical incident around these parts. Though it was restored later in the day, the morning was still cold. My mother came in and covered me with her shawl and brought a blanket for Lazy Jackass. There’s a buttload of construction going on across the street, but the eternal stray dogs are still there, howling. I think their howls must be etched into the ground and the trees and walls and the sky by now.
What is home? It goes no further than your body and the bodies of people you love – everything beyond that is a wilderness. Bodies degrade as homes do, but the former is not yet mortgaged or occupied.
At this time of year, we put up garlands of lights around familiar objects in an attempt to beat back the darkness – we’re old pagans with knowledge of electricity. We claim the streets with our lights, and the darkness hangs back a little, turning away and pretending as though it has something better to do this evening.
Alexey and I leave Little Buddy in the care of his granddad and go walking the streets in the early evening, wandering into an old Greek restaurant that seems to exist solely for the purpose of money laundering – and good tzatziki. Prices in Kiev seem comical after you spend a substantial amount of time in Moscow. I put my head on my husband’s shoulder and listen to the noisy office party taking place next door. When we come back, granddad is hopping about in a jester’s hat with bells – while Little Buddy remains stubbornly displeased. I pick him up and wander my childhood apartment – this is the room where my great-grandmother died. My brother sleeps here now, under a huge American flag – whenever he’s home that is, which is not that often (my brother is smart). The room where my grandfather died – with the artificial Christmas tree glowing in the corner. Little Buddy seizes a snowman ornament and sends it flying to the floor. The snowman remains cheerful and unscathed. The cat gives a disdainful look that suggests that he could never get away with such nonsense.
We’re home for now, I think. We’re home as much as it is possible to be so.