I must lose my virginity. Tonight.” Hannah’s radiant blue eyes looked serious and a bit worried. She held up her hand. “Mama, before you say anything—”
The universe tilted a little, and the soapy sponge—bool’k!—tumbled from my hands into the greasy skillet full of hot, scummy water soaking in the sink. This isn’t good, I thought.
“I know what you’ll say. ‘Why rush things? Wait for the right man, fall in love, then have sex.’”
“That’s right,” I said. “Sex isn’t a purely mechanical problem of how to fit thing A into thing B—”
“Oh God, no. God. Don’t even start, Mama. This negativity of yours is driving me nuts.”
“You’re so old-fashioned.”
“Try ‘protective.’ I don’t want you to get hurt.”
She leaned against the fridge, delicate and fine-boned and a little pale. Her shiny dark hair had fallen across her eyes. “You worry too much,” she said with the confidence of youth, completely unfazed.
The alchemy of being responsible for creating a remarkable human being—what an education this had proved for me. “Wait a bit. Think about it more,” I said. “The freedom of sex promises liberation, but creates a lot of other issues instead.”
Her eyes moved about as she considered this, the fingers of one hand, with its Midnight Blue nail polish, tugging on the tiny silver dove on the chain around her neck. “I don’t want to wait,” she said. “I’m seventeen. God knows when the right person will come along. I want it to be done and over with so I’m like any other girl in my class. It’s not a big thing. I’m not just another teenager with raging hormones. I’m capable of making rational decisions. And I don’t need you to be judgmental and all.” She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear.
“Not judging.” I held up both hands. Soapy water ran down my arms, dripped from my elbows to the floor. I knew to tread carefully. The information window could snap shut any second. Seventeen, I mouthed. All eyes and limbs. I could not be more thrilled. I understood that eventually the subject would come up, but did it have to be tonight? What was wrong with twenty years from now?
“You’re overreacting,” she said.
“I thought about it. Nothing you say will stop me.” She was typing on her phone now, her thumbs flying, her hair veiling her face. “You don’t want me getting too serious too young, do you?”
“No,” I said. “But—”
“Then be grateful I have no plans to settle down yet. I mean, there’s no point in getting involved now when I’m about to leave for college. This way is better—we’ll be fuck buddies.”
“Uh…what?” I tried to be tolerant and understanding. High school is hard. She was under a lot of pressure, my sweetheart. They were all under a lot of pressure.
“You know. No strings attached.” Her face was innocent, her eyes luminous.
“Oh, well then,” I said. “That sounds far better. I guess I should be glad you’re making friends.”
“Really, Mom? Really? Not funny. I picked Daniel to be my first.”
Daniel? With sad, pink, patchy skin and sad, brown, poodle hair and sad brown eyes—that kid carried bottomless sadness with him. No less embittered than a typical seventeen-year-old, but perhaps more. He was a punk with a real talent for tasteless remarks, but not a bad person—gawky and confused and unspoiled with attention, he showed off how tough he could be and called his father Walt and his mother Wilma. He could not seem to catch a break ever since the day his unmarried mother, a respectable investment banker, had run off with her new boyfriend, an ambitious proctologist, when Daniel was four, and his relieved biological father, an accountant, had moved to Cleveland, Ohio, with his lawful wife and two kids.
His always-annoyed aunt, Jossie, Wilma’s unmarried older sister…well, Daniel had to stay with her, this woman who never felt particularly maternal, had no interest in raising children, and never neglected to show it. She was a screamer too. The boy never engaged in a conversation, shooting down my attempts with a flat “Fine”—a cover-up for all the other words he could not say, and questions got stuck in my throat like a fish bone.
I felt sort of protective tenderness for him, more than what I would feel for a homeless kitten, but not enough to serve my openhearted daughter to him on a platter. And though Hannah pretended to be a little less smart than she was around Daniel, I was grateful it was not the one before him, Steve, a self-proclaimed five-star chef—the result of one summer job in a mobile burger joint when he was not getting tattooed.
“First what?” I asked.
“Come off it. Don’t behave like you don’t understand. Look at Angelina in 1G. She’s sixteen and pregnant with her second child.” She smiled, lifting a shoulder.
“Oh, Hannah…It has crossed my mind. But what an interesting argument. Yes, I’m sure her mother, Rosamaria the alcoholic, is overwhelmed with her good fortune. And so is her father, in prison. And things wouldn’t be so bad if Angelina’s last boyfriend hadn’t given her gonorrhea. He also gave gonorrhea to Rosamaria, and now they are both getting treatments from Dr. Gonzales in 6F. All right. As you wish. I believe in us. We can do it. You go get pregnant, and I’ll start drinking right away. But first let’s call your father and talk him into turning himself in.”
“Why is everything funny with you?”
A fire truck’s siren loudened, followed by a second truck, and a third. I yanked out the stick holding the narrow windowpane up, and it slammed shut with the sound of a shotgun going off, followed by the angry flapping of pigeons’ wings. The honking of horns on the street below muted a little. The sirens faded in a distance.
“I don’t find this funny at all,” I said. Damn right.
She flipped her bangs out of her eyes. “I’m seventeen and I’m still a virgin.”
The perils of the modern age. I understand. I do. “Let it be our worst tragedy ever.”
“Mama, my God! That’s not fair.”
Her eyes and cheeks glowed, framed by a mass of dark-brown curls. Bright blue eyes and dimples—my angel. Will I love her any less? No.
“Well,” I said.
“Well, indeed.” Hannah read something on her phone, raised her eyes to meet mine.
“I respect your decisions. It’s your body. It’s your life. Use protection.”
“Mother! Stop treating me like a little girl!” She went out the door with a backward wave of her hand, her limbs graceful and long. The door clicked shut.
The young and the restless! No dread of falling. They know everything! I wanted to feel enlightened and progressive about sex. I also wanted to cry. I would be happier crying in the kitchen.
My cubbyhole kitchen was my kingdom. I reigned there—during the day, at least. Nights belonged to roaches. Orangey-brown and plump, they held soccer tournaments on discolored Formica countertops and frolicked when I brought in the newest version of a roach motel, scientifically proven to kill them, when the previous model had been discontinued as too toxic for humans. Like a new drug that would elicit a round of cheers from underage partygoers, they scuttled after me, happy for the opportunity to try it. They congregated near the entrance, holding counsel, and the most adventurous ventured in only to come out shortly and drop down dead…in theory. For a few hours, brown bodies lay on their backs on the countertop and the floor, their extremities churning the air with increasing velocity, only to flip over and scurry off to go about their business as usual some time later.
I jammed paper towels into crevasses in the walls and base moldings with a screwdriver, but new hordes kept trekking in. It was a lost war. And one day they were gone. All of them. It puzzled me until I discovered a strange object hanging from a ceiling beam in the basement. It looked like a ball of dung collected by a pitbull-sized beetle to feed its progeny, spreading around an odor too rich to be described.
I asked our superintendent Pedro what it was. He told me: “Friday,” he said, and nodded. “Friday, Friday.”
That sounds about right, I thought.
The idiot bulgy-eyed dachshund next door yapped. The eight-year-old Russian girl from the fifth floor, tone-deaf but stubborn, was still practicing scales, missing the notes, her thin voice breaking up. The couple upstairs bickered. The squares of sunlight slanted over the floor like a net. Back in Moscow, when I had a problem, I would get a bottle of vodka and invite a few friends over. By the end of the bottle, we would find a working solution, although some problems required multiple sittings. My expectations back then had been lower too; my biggest dream had been sewing a new dress. In New York I have been going to psychologists for years and none of my problems were resolvable. I was as confused as ever. “All right,” my therapist would say. “Something to think about. We’ll continue with this the next time.” Did anyone ever get well? In some ways I miss Russia.
Nothing is what you imagine, I told myself, and opened the fridge. A few stalks of celery, two apples, a jar of mustard, and a half-empty jar of strawberry jam. I traced my finger along the edge of the wire shelf. We are out of milk, I thought, but was in no mood to see happy families herding their children through the aisles, loading shopping carts with jumbo packages of potato chips and chocolate chip cookies.
I took things out of the fridge, began cleaning the inside and the racks with a soapy sponge. Then I put everything back in. My hands still trembled. Well, it was inevitable, I thought. If only her father were alive, but since he had died so tragically…
T’foo! I spat and tossed the sponge into the sink. Where had that come from? Sergey was very much alive and well and uninterested in what was happening with Hannah. He often forgot she existed. The mistakes I had made. One thing was for sure—I would not be like Mother. I would not constrain my daughter. She would have the freedom I never had. She would have a good life. I knew she would.
Memories came uninvited. A flood of glimpses of my “gosling,” like a flipbook in no order, took me back, rushing through the corridors of time. She had been a beautiful little one, born with long, dark fuzz extending every which way. Her intense, cornflower-blue eyes took up half her face, her thin stalk of a neck poked out of the faded-beige blanket like a baby Galapagos turtle’s. The tiny body, the little face—so vulnerable and sweet and perfect that tears filled my eyes in surge of love and tenderness as I placed her at my breast. She arched her back, but did not let out any requisite cry. Her mouth moved in a sucking motion in search of a nipple, tiny fingers splayed like starfish. She took up all the space in my life—the sun in my solar system. From then on my life revolved around hers, ruled by the simple needs of this small and loud and demanding lump of love, and my happiness was simple and complete.
In the beginning handling babies made me nervous. I had no one to ask for advice—books contradicted one another, and Mother was of no help. I made mistake after mistake. The horror of my own unavoidable inadequacy was constant, but somehow Hannah made it out of infancy alive. A toddler with a partial set of teeth in bib overalls, who had just begun to talk in sentences, legs bowed on either side of a bulging diaper, would smile and clap and say in a small voice, “Take an umbrella. It’ll rain.” Hannah had this thing for umbrellas.
Still small, her hair cropped boyish short, she would ride in the shopping cart, her little feet dangling from the wire seat. Strangers would stop and say, “Look at those eyes! What a cute little boy!” and pinch her firm cheek. Hannah hated that. And one day, when an old woman stretched out her arm, ready to pinch, my baby yelled, “Oh shit!”
The skinniest one in her class, her thin shoulder blades jutted out like two wings of a warbler. I could count each vertebra. She was also the smallest, always the last one in the lineup among other plankton. Her pink book bag, covered with glittery stickers, was as big as she was, her little thumbs hooked under the wide straps.
She had grown up. A delicately thin girl with scraped knees and elbows and a contemplative streak had budded into a sexy young woman, leaving adolescence to enter adulthood. She would always be at the center of my existence, but I was no longer at the center of hers. It pained my heart, but I had to let her go to live her life. I could not shield her from everything. On the road to independence, bumps and blows will show the way. And like countless others, some things she would have to learn herself.
From the first punch of a baby not yet born, floating in the darkness of a womb, moving a hand or a foot (doing somersaults with a swift kick to your ribs with an elbow or a heel)—the whole miracle-of-life thing—you never stop worrying, and life becomes waiting, full of unnamed fears and hopes. Waiting for the first fever to subside (and all the others too), waiting to pick her up from her first day in kindergarten, then school, the first bra, the first party, then the first date, waiting to hear of her first boyfriend, the first kiss, waiting for them to grow strong, sprout wings, and fly away (feeling as if you have been exiled), waiting out their moodiness and stages, waiting to hear they are safe, lying in bed waiting for sleep—a labyrinth of worrying, worrying, waiting, worrying—countless sleepless nights. I learned to take nothing for granted. I felt powerless to stop her but privileged she came to me, announcing it at seventeen instead of getting pregnant at twelve. Hannah is a great kid.
To save myself a lot of grief, New York today cannot be compared with Moscow twenty years ago. Take Vadim and Irene, both intellectuals, both lawyers. He made partner. They have a beautiful house, a housekeeper, and all three kids have police records. Three hateful, foulmouthed children. The monosyllabic twelve-year-old leaves rehab for a youth facility and back again and does only what he wants to do. They are happy their daughter comes home at all. The purple-haired fourteen-year-old is on a cocktail of meds for her hyperactive-impulsive disorder, was detained for possession of drugs and shoplifting, and is a walking learning prop for the art of piercing after quite a few artists used her body to express their vision of true beauty—a series of bad decisions. She has more piercings than teeth. Zombie-like, always reading comic books and sneaking a smoke out in their courtyard, cupping her palm around a cigarette or a joint, her eyes and her pimply forehead hidden behind her bangs. Cries too, a lot.
The oldest, twenty-three, is a good-looking boy and a perfect student. He seemed the nicest one of three, but was suspected in running dope, got off on “not enough evidence,” and is now serving time for raping a minor. None of them speak to the parents. All three loathe both parents equally. No matter where one turns nowadays, it is the same story: drugs, drugs, drugs. Vadim used to say, “Children are our future.” He does not say it anymore. Irene just cries on the phone, “Where did we go wrong?”
I felt a tug as the seedling of loneliness stirred, the future ache of hollow longing, the unwelcome guest. In a few short months it would catch me by the throat. The streetlights came on, making the gray of the buildings grayer against the gray sky. The moon was bright, and the night cold. Some windows were lit, and I could peek at the pantomimes of other people’s lives and loves trapped in yellowish rectangles. A faint blue glow flickered in quite a few. A Viennese waltz flew in from somewhere. The stop-and-go traffic was heavy, but the crowds had thinned, the sidewalk was almost deserted, a few figures hurried along. In the twilight I saw a man striding along Broadway, a little boy straggling a few steps behind him. Father and son. The man stopped near a fire hydrant and faced the boy, opening his arms in a pleading gesture. The boy stopped too, maintaining the distance, and shook his head. The father made a step toward his son, the boy retreated a pace. The man waved one arm and stomped along the street. The boy trotted behind.
I ensconced myself on a living room couch, switched on the Discovery Channel to take my mind off Hannah and to curb the multiplying negative thoughts. Glowing Adam (my Siamese cat in a brother-sister set—one Adam, one Eve) jumped on my lap, curled up, pushed his cold nose into my arm. How do people get through life without a cat? I wondered, hugging him tighter, and concentrated on the screen, where the world brimmed with sounds: things croaked, barked, whistled, howled, shrieked, squawked, hissed, guffawed, yelped, and God-knows-what-else to enact the great symphony of life.
The multicolored birds flitted and darted and fluttered about. Howler monkeys chased one another on branches of a gigantic tree. A chaser caught up with the chased, and they began mating, screeching as fighting cats, growling and biting. “As you can see, their manner is casual and very relaxed,” the narrator said. The lush foliage of the rainforest faded away to be replaced by African savanna. Giraffes ran on stilts, their long necks swinging forward and back. The antelopes grazed, jaws moving from side to side. They raised their heads, stopped chewing, ears flicking back and forth. One or two stepped sideways—the lionesses hid in the grass, about to pounce. A hippo boy mounted a hippo girl, bellowing low.
I switched the channel. A partially naked couple kissed. I switched the channel again and to my delight, saw a mutilated body being put into a drawer in a morgue. Perfect. I’ll be too scared to think of anything else. I fidgeted a little to get more comfortable, as Eve—Adam’s biological sister as well as his sister in arms—as superior as a cat can be, joined Adam on my lap. The scene flicked to a couple having sex. I switched the TV off and picked up a book from the coffee table. Anna Karenina. I let it open at a random place and began to read.
That which for Vronsky had been almost a whole year the one absorbing desire of his life, replacing all his old desires; that which for Anna had been an impossible, terrible, and even for that reason more entrancing dream of bliss, that desire had been fulfilled. He stood before her, pale, his lower jaw quivering, and besought her to be calm, not knowing how or why.
‘Anna! Anna!’ he said with a choking voice, ‘Anna, for pity’s sake…!…’
But the louder he spoke, the lower she dropped her once proud and gay, now shame-stricken head, and she bowed down and sank from the sofa where she was sitting, down on the floor, at his feet; she would have fallen on the carpet if he had not held her.
‘My God! Forgive me!’ she said, sobbing, pressing his hands to her bosom.
She felt so sinful, so guilty, that nothing was left her but to humiliate herself and beg forgiveness; and as now there was no one in her life but him, to him she addressed her prayer for forgiveness. Looking at him, she had a physical sense of her humiliation, and she could say nothing more. He felt what a murderer must feel, when he sees the body he has robbed of life. That body, robbed by him of life, was their love, the first stage of their love. There was something awful and revolting in the memory of what had been bought at this fearful price of shame. Shame at their spiritual nakedness crushed her and infected him. But in spite of all the murderer’s horror before the body of his victim, he must hack it to pieces, hide the body, must use what he has gained by his murder…
I closed the book and dialed Rita.
“It was bound to happen sooner or later,” she said. “This is so sweet. She looks to you for everything, letting you in on intimate stuff. I wonder if what’s-his-name is a good lover.”
“Thanks. Now I’ll be picturing that.”
“Welcome. Do you have a good losing-my-virginity story? Mine was lousy.”
“So was mine,” I said. “Chaotic. The limited theoretical knowledge hadn’t done much good. He had done it all wrong, though he had boasted about taking life lessons from his swearing drunkard neighbor nicknamed Horse.”
“Did your mother ever talk to you about sex?”
“Mother? Sure. I was active in track and field, and when I got my first period I had no idea what it was. I thought I’d damaged something and that if I didn’t die on my own, she’d kill me for going against her wishes and participating in sports.”
“Why are you so upset?” Rita asked.
“Sex is bonding. Especially the first time. It’s like an enduring dividing line—before and after. In her most vulnerable moment, Hannah will bond to a schmuck and suffer it for the rest of her life. Daniel is a troubled kid. Whenever they’re together, I’m worried something bad will happen. No love. No magic. It’ll be messy and horrible. A trauma instead of a celebration.”
“Maybe the romance isn’t so important anymore.” Rita did not sound too convinced.
“It’s in our DNA. It’ll always be important.”
“Sex is a wonderful thing.”
“Yes, with the right person. With the wrong one, it could put you off for years. It’s—” I paused. “Hold please. I have another caller. Could be Hannah.” I switched the line.
“This is the Police Precinct Thirty-Three,” a man’s voice said. “We got a situation here. Daniel Nigorsky was brought in on count of driving a stolen vehicle under the influence and for assaulting a police officer. He may have to face charges. You daughter was in the vehicle with him. She has no ID. We can’t release her without verifying her identity.”
Ah. One of those things. I switched back to Rita. “Rita, I have to go.”
“Whatever it is she did—don’t kill her. Could be worse. Could be anorexia or something.”
. . .
I sat down on one of the molded plastic chairs connected together by metal rods, two seats away from a petite, angular woman in shapeless dark clothes, who had a small face and large, dark circles under her tiny, deep-set eyes. The narrow, windowless room smelled of old building and French fries. The speckled, brownish-gray linoleum floor, streaked with mud, had a forked, lighter trail where traffic had been the heaviest. The billboard on the opposite wall overflowed with wanted posters and pictures of missing children pinned to it. The pebble-textured panels of the ceiling hung so low it seemed I could reach it sitting down. Plain fluorescent tube lights buzzed like a swarm of angry flies. Hannah, my elfin Hannah, sweet and rebellious and bright, who was about to finish high school, had been arrested on a municipal charge of disorderly conduct when she refused to stay in the car while Daniel was given a field sobriety test. She was told to return to the car, but stated she was a US citizen and that she was allowed to stand on American ground.
“She’s a firecracker, this one,” the cop behind the desk had said.
What’s taking so long? I dropped my head and closed my eyes. I heard a stifled cough and glanced in the direction of the sound. A woman near me clutched something in her nervous hands. Her body seemed rigid with tension, stretched as a guitar string to the limits. Her gaze was fixed on the floor, her lips moved as if she were praying, her thin dirty-blond hair quivering from the eager diligence. She raised her eyes, regarded me in silence, and with urgency slid into the seat next to me. She clasped my hand and pushed an object into my palm. A plastic crucifix.
“Praise Jesus! Praise the Lord, the man who died for your sins,” she said in a honking voice, her cheeks turning pink. “I was a sinner like you before I found Jesus. Let him into your heart. He’ll forgive all your sins, past and future. Repent! The devil is after you.”
I shuddered in surprise and slid across to the next seat, away from her.
“You’re a devil!” Her voice rose to a screech, her intense eyes drilling me.
The cop behind the desk looked up from his paperwork.
“Rose!” he said. “Rose, let her be. Your brother is on his way to pick you up. Sit tight.”
A metal door opened, slammed shut. A policeman, a little short for a cop, with a sprinkle of dark moles on his young face walked into the lobby. I saw Hannah—pale cheeks and red, swollen eyelids—behind his shoulder and approached the reception counter. My eyes began to water halfway there.
The source of the sour odor of sweat and vomit and stale beer—a thin, middle-aged man with a long, bruised face—was cuffed and held by the arm by a policeman in mirror shades. The detainee seemed in a trance, but came alive when I neared him. He emitted a battery of nasty-sounding rasps and bent toward me, and I almost choked from the stench.
“Your girly here needs a man’s firm hand to guide her in life.” He nodded toward Hannah. The top two buttons on his bloodied shirt were torn off, and the tuft of black fur that grew in the hollow of his neck moved along with the rhythm of his nods. “And you, sweet buns”—he checked me up and down—“come to Daddy. Daddy will show you a good time.”
“Is that why you beat up your wife?” the policeman holding him asked. “To show her a good time? Is that why she’s in the hospital?”
“Thank your neighbors for calling an ambulance,” the rosy-cheeked cop behind the desk said. “You won’t be charged for murder this time.”
The man tightened his jaw, spat on the floor, his eyes glazed over.
“Ma’am, sign here,” the cop behind the desk said, and pointed with a pen at Hannah. “You’re free to go. You’re lucky nobody got hurt. We’ll keep your friend overnight. His parents can pick him up tomorrow.”
“His aunt,” Hannah said. “She won’t come, and she won’t drop the charges.”
“Would she post a five-grand bond?”
“Too bad for him.”
The street was empty and dark. A hunched man with a disconnected expression, wearing a shirt short in the sleeves and frayed at the cuffs, played an accordion on a windy corner. A sliver of a moon pierced through the dirty-gray clouds for a moment and was swallowed again. It began to drizzle. Rain fell quietly. The potholes in the wet asphalt quickly filled with puddles.
“You look cold,” I said.
Hannah wrapped her arms around my neck. “Oh, Mama… Mama.” Tears came from her eyes. We stood still for a moment. She separated from me, shook her head, blew her nose.
“Mama, I feel bad about what happened,” she said. “I’ll never do it again.”
“Don’t make promises you don’t intend to keep.”
She blushed, lowered her eyes, but then looked up and cocked her head to one side. “We didn’t steal a car, we borrowed it. It belongs to Jossie. She just reported it as stolen. Why does she hate him so much? That’s so unfair.”
I tilted my head to mimic the angle of hers. “Life is unfair. And cruel. Messy too. In fact, it’s a total catastrophe. Get used to it. But then, isn’t life interesting?”
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