Temporary shelters

The snow falls silently on the graves of the people I love
On the graves of the people I would have loved
If given half a chance
The sky above my house is made of remembrances of raven wings
And amethyst
The pear trees my dead grandfather planted
Offer their bark up to be kissed.

*****

I was in London recently and I was very happy – in a way that I’ve never been before while in London, my unattainable city, the place I’ve always loved and which had never loved me back. I think this happiness came from not caring.

“You’ll love an Englishman, of course,” my grandmother’s fierce cousin, the late Yevgeniya Andreyevna, told me once. “And loving him will be like cracking open a snail shell – that is to say slimy and cold.”

I was seventeen, had never had a boyfriend (yet alone loved anyone), and didn’t realize she was making a prophecy. She was very fond of making casual prophecies back then, as easily as she refilled my wine glass at dinner, and every one came true eventually.

I remembered her when I walked through Mayfair, when I couldn’t tell what it was that beat inside my chest – my heart or a pair of dark raven wings.

And I drank champagne in her memory when the city lay beneath my feet – a scattering of rare jewels, satisfyingly hard to the touch.

You cannot love London too much. You have to turn your back on it and scowl at it over your bare shoulder and then turn away again. Possibly for years. And London, being London, will be proud for a while, but then it will ask you back for a spell, and it will make you very happy during the whole of it. Only you must always say goodbye first and close the door very firmly behind you. Go under the cover of darkness, go, go, one boot in front of the other. Life is getting shorter, life is thinning out and chipping on the edges, all you can carry away with you is, as usual, God and love. Everything else will be too damn heavy and not worth the strain on your shoulder.

*****

Øystein Bogen and I gave a joint seminar on the Ukraine crisis & the propaganda war surrounding it in Oslo a few weeks ago. I think we did a good job – well, Øystein certainly did, I think I became too emotional in places – and I think it was that evening, in that beautiful city where candles burn on tables throughout the winter, that I accepted that the world has changed irrevocably, and there is nothing I can do about it, except tell the truth as I see it.

I associate a lot of pain with my background these days. These veins that run through me – Ukraine, the U.S., and Russia – they all bleed quite a startling red. For the obvious reasons.

I’ve struggled against the new normal, “You can’t be real,” I said. It was like arguing with weather. And it was Oslo that whispered about the futility of that into my willing ear. So dark it was and so lovely. I know now why they call Norway troll country. Or I almost know. (Will I come back? I seriously hope to come back)

*****

In Moscow, even before the ruble starting crashing, there was already electricity in the air. Static. Hands touched in ways that made you gasp.

I lit small lanterns and Christmas lights and listened to the wind lashing the khrushchyovka. Nothing says “temporary” like a khrushchyovka – nothing says “shadows and dust,” nothing says “only love and God.”

I went to the theater and saw my own work up on the stage – or a reflection of my work – and there was joy and outrage in the audience, and I was so grateful. My husband introduced me to the coat check ladies as “the author.” He would do that, of course. He would drag me backstage afterwards, too. If it wasn’t for him, I’d just leave anonymously – but he’s a different breed of person, not shy, and not ashamed of me. This is something I will also always be grateful for (I think I am now at that age when I can begin to use the word “always” and actually mean it).

I’ve been so bitterly disappointed with Moscow, but even so I have clutched its gifts to my chest. Would I have dared to become a mother anywhere else? It was the wildness of this place, the bones exposed through the supple flesh of civilization, that said “Jump!” Now Lev has gotten to be very tall for a toddler, and is mastering sarcasm. The top of his head smells like last night’s dreams. He seems to be growing so fast that I want to hit “pause” – already looking longingly at babies in prams and remembering when he was tiny.

And I am constantly saying “Oh Moscow” and it comes out differently each time.

*****

The book is going well so far. (What book? THE book. Or possibly A book. I don’t know right now)

*****

And I woke up again in my father’s house and the night was already dented in several places, losing out to one of those slow, scruffy winter dawns. And I said, “I am not prepared to go on this journey, but I am always going on it anyway, I’m not sure where the journey ends and where I begin. It feels like a dress rehearsal for death. Or life eternal. I can’t tell anymore.” And there was nothing anyone could say to that, but there was still good coffee in the offing, and sometimes, that’s the best that any of us can hope for.

Jack of hearts

Men have always said, “Don’t you dare write about me.”

Max never said anything of the sort, because writing didn’t exist for him, not really. It was real the way Australia might be real to someone in Europe. You’d see people from Australia posting on Twitter when the night was too hot for sleep and that would be as far as you were willing to cross into that particular reality. Not that Max had a Twitter.

One time, a drunk cab driver hit Max with his car outside a highway gas station somewhere in darkest East Ukraine. Max, who was drunk himself, got up from the asphalt, dragged the cab driver out of the cab by his hair and started punching him. Max’s friends told me this story, so I know he didn’t make it up (I hadn’t known him to make shit up, but at that point, I had worked as a journalist for too long to believe people outright most of the time). They said his then-wife had been literally hanging off of his arm, trying to make him let the cab driver go. He had several broken ribs and fingers at the time. What was impressive, they said, was how his anger was bigger than his pain. I think about that anger often, as I watch the news from East Ukraine.

“Goddamn it, Natalia,” you just said. “This trick of telling us about Ukraine via the prism of Dudes You Used To Date is getting old. If that’s what you’re doing again…”

That is exactly what I’m doing again. And it’s also not what I’m doing at all. That is not what I meant at all. That is not it. Etc.

Max, whose name isn’t really Max, didn’t date me. Instead, he came to see me at odd times. One time, he came to pick me up from the airport, after I’d flown in from Dubai. I was expecting my parents, but there was Max instead, grim like the weather, a bomber jacket on him I have never forgotten, because of the way the collar felt against my fingers.

“What are you doing here?” I said.

“I’m taking you home.”

I wanted to say something dramatic about how I have no home, but I was too tired from the flight. The familiar road from Borispyl Airport to Kiev was curiously empty, and it made me briefly wonder if the world had ended.

Timing is everything. It’s what John Donne knew, and Keats, and Dire Straits, and the man who once served Max and I beer in a roadside cafe, then turned around and said that it’s technically too early for beer anyway, but that we look like adults willing to take responsibility for our bad decisions. How we laughed. How small my hand felt in his hand, then – and my hands aren’t exactly small. How absolutely feral, his presence. Hungover, I rested my head against the complicated topography of muscle underneath his shirt.

Every once in a while, you need a man to be your wolf, carrying you on his back through the night.

When you don’t have that – well, you stagger on through the night on your own accord, and you skin will cry tiny seams of blood from the brambles, and you will probably get old prematurely, and none of that will be a tragedy, in the end. Or, rather, it will be a tragedy that’s muted in a very English way, on in an Anna Akhamtova way, when she struggles to get the glove onto the wrong hand, because she is distracted.

You might expect me to write that I took Max for granted, that I took youth and freedom for granted, but honestly, I don’t think I did.

And when he carried me on his back through the dark after we left some bar, I shuddered with every step he took, and staring sideways at the moon, I felt as though I might go cross-eyed, and I asked the pale face of the moon to not punish me for my happiness, and when we walked together we would stop and light candles in every open church we came across, and when I felt my hair streaming down my back as he undid my topknot the sensation thickened my blood into amber, and my breaths were very, very slow and light, and I felt afraid of disturbing the way the atoms in the room had arranged themselves. And when I asked him, much later, if he had been happy, he raised an eyebrow at me and told me not to ask extremely dumb fucking questions. It was just that the time allotted to us was short.

In Moscow last month, there was a heat wave before the cold spell. The air kept getting hotter with the dawn, humming with invisible energy, stifling the breath and blooming wild roses on the children’s cheeks, growing more and more unbearable with the minute, until the entire damn pressure cooker erupted in thunderstorms around lunchtime, making me pause in the street, palms up in exhausted gratitude. It felt as though if I stood there long enough, the rain would wash my thoughts away.

I have been concerning myself with work, with a new play, with my son’s immediate needs, with chilling the champagne. I have never felt more stupid or more uncertain about anything.

I just wanted to write that “I have never been more afraid,” but that’s not exactly true.  Continue reading “Jack of hearts”

Goodbye to The Moscow News: on riding off into the sunset yet again

“Again the well-worn saddle creaks,
And the wind chills an old wound;
Monsieur, where in the name of hell have you wound up?
Can it be you can’t afford a bit of calm?”

After nearly four years, I am leaving The Moscow News. Now that our owner, the RIA Novosti agency, has been liquidated, the paper has been put on hiatus, all of our social media channels are frozen, and the audience we have worked very hard to build has been left wondering what’s going to happen next. I will not be with TMN in the next chapter, so I will not be the one answering that question.

I do sincerely hope that the paper will be reopened – and that it will thrive.

I also have words of advice for everyone interested both in the media and in Russia.

To say that the future is uncertain is to say that the celestial void is somewhat daunting to behold. What’s especially hard to accept is that with regard to Ukraine, nothing may ever be the same again. It’s a scary, painful time. And it’s almost bizarre to observe how the stuff of headlines and news reports also has to do with your family and fate.

Personally speaking, I have been asking myself whether or not I would change anything if given the chance to go back. The answer is “no.”

I’ve also been asking myself how I really feel about everything – and in the end, all I can think about is how grateful I am for every single day I spent in the company of amazing people, doing something I loved. 

So here’s to love. And to the past. And to the future.

the musketeers agree

Darkness on the Edge of Moscow: excerpt 2

Previous excerpt here.

“Do your friends actually call you La?” He tried and failed to stifle a laugh.

“Close friends.” The label on the beer bottle would not come off no matter how hard she scraped at it. “So you, for example, would have to refer to me as Nelly.”

“Where did Nelly come from?”

“Full name’s Leonella.”

“Wow.”

He began to say something else. La’s gaze wandered downward. On the street below, a garbage truck was trying to turn around. Its path was blocked by a flashy sports car with its hazards on. She saw the truck’s driver jump out from the cabin and shake his fist in the direction of the sports car. The driver of the sports car leaned on the horn.

From up high, it was hard to tell whom to side with.

Continue reading “Darkness on the Edge of Moscow: excerpt 2”

Darkness on the Edge of Moscow: an excerpt

This is an excerpt of a bigger work of fiction. 

The train paused briefly in the tunnel between the stations – a rare occurrence for the circle line. La leaned against the door, pressed right up against the place where it said “No Leaning,” and thought about disaster. Images from the trailer of a movie she had failed to see in the theaters – something about the river dramatically rushing into the metro tunnels – shimmered briefly in her mind.

She wasn’t sure how she would like to die in the event of a real metro disaster. Quickly? Or in some equally horrific and heroic fashion? Either way, Slava would probably be sad, at least for some brief and crucial moment.

He would have to hide it, of course. His sadness could not go beyond the boundaries of propriety. She imagined him drinking forlornly in some Soviet-like establishment with no seating spaces and lots of kitschy posters, surrounded by nostalgia-driven hipsters. She remembered that he no longer drank. She imagined him sitting in his car, his big hands gripping the wheel, as his knuckles turned white. He had told her that this happened sometimes.

Then what? Then he would drive home, pick up some groceries on the way, exchange gruff pleasantries with a neighbor in the parking lot, kiss his wife at the door as she urged him to take off his snow-caked boots, and park himself in front of the TV with a Playstation and the kids for company. It would snow lightly outside – she imagined delicate, ghostly snowflakes soundlessly hitting the glass. The kids would fight over the second Playstation controller. The neighbors would laugh and murmur on a nearby balcony. And La would still be dead.

She was angrily thinking about how Slava would never even notice the beauty and futility of the evening snowflakes bashing themselves against the glass when she realized the train was in motion.

Resigned to living for the time being, she focused on being angry. Why couldn’t he just break things off with her like the normal sort of cheating bastard who inevitably gets tired of a mistress? Why couldn’t he make her into a proper mistress while he was at it? Why was he talking about “confusion” and making plans that meant nothing?

The soldier profiles ensconced in marble at Taganskaya station side-eyed her as she got off the train. “The real problem here is that you spend too much time thinking about him,” one of them said. “He doesn’t think nearly as much about you.”

“Unless it’s to ruminate very briefly on the way your tits tasted in his mouth that one time,” another one piped up. 

“Trust us. We’re men. We would know,” a third one laughed mirthlessly.

Continue reading “Darkness on the Edge of Moscow: an excerpt”