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From the chronology of my life, an eight-year old memory…

When I studied as an undergraduate at UCSD, there was a great financial temptation that I succumbed to almost immediately upon discovery. In the psychology, sociology and linguistics buildings where I spent most of my time, there were always flyers hanging, inviting healthy students to participate in studies for a compensation ranging from $20 – $200. I started collecting phone number stubs and contacting graduate and PhD students, offering my pregnant, whimsical self for the betterment of humanity.

One experiment took place on the fifth floor of the Linguistics Building, where a painfully timid Chinese graduate student was researching the frontal cortex and peripheral vision. The test subject was supposed to sit on a swivel stool, place their chin on a plastic platform and look inside a device of sorts, not unlike those used to test eyesight and pupil dilation. You had to look straight, and every once in a while tiny green dots would signal in your right or left peripheral vision, for only a millisecond or two. If you noticed them, you were supposed to raise the respective hand. And so it went for about half an hour. There was a scanner embedded deep inside the device, which recorded your eye movement and focus. This is why you were supposed to sit especially still.

I committed myself to five sessions, and started coming. Apparently I had a knack for sitting painfully still and perceiving green dots with my peripherals. The graduate student interviewed me after each session, and unbeknownst to myself, I gradually befriended him. Shy, foreign, scientific types were my forte – I spent all of high school hanging out with them, and so for me talking with him came naturally. When everything was over and I received my hard-earned $100, the student invited me to lunch to celebrate the completion of the study. Since I had mentioned to him several times over the course of the sessions that I was married, I figured it was safe. Stubborn and naive, I convinced myself that all bases were covered by an additional admonishment that we were going as friends only.

During the dinner the student was on perfect gentlemanly behavior, and gave me a pot-bellied ceramic teddy bear for storing hot sake. The following morning I received an email in which, in his broken English, he confessed his love. It broke my heart: how perfect this would have been for someone who wasn’t me! But I was not destined to make his happiness, to be his other half, etc.

I responded with a polite reminder about my marriage, and that marked the end of our mostly professional relationship. I kept the bear though, as a talisman and a reminder for myself.

But of what, I’ve forgotten.

Last night I dreamt about Paris again. Unlike the previous night, this time I actually got to walk around the city. I woke up with an intense feeling of excitement and awe. A sense of incredulous eagerness hung around long after the dream had passed.

This is how I feel when I think about Paris, when I remember living there. In that city it seems like a grand surprise awaits you around every corner. You might wander into a deserted inner courtyard with ivy draped over 200-year old window sills, you might come upon a Chinese fish and poultry shop replete with curious knick-knacks. You might just read about a sound and light show happening…yes…tonight, in the Parc de la Villette, and you just might hop the next RER and go. When I lived there, when I visited, joy followed me wherever I went. And how could it not when you constantly expect to run into something wonderful, magical. There, even the gray rains of autumn are lovely. The frisk coldness of February mornings as you hurry across the Seine are punctuated with a sense of historicity. To think – people have rushed across these bridges for centuries, beholding the strict outlines of the Louvre and the hollow curves of St.Eustache. So many mysteries, so many treasures.

Still under the effect of last night’s dreamings, I climbed into the car. I was puzzling over why Paris and the French language have such an allure for me when I absent-mindedly turned on the CD player. From it the melodious, nostalgic tones of French song legend Joe Dasen brought me back and I smiled. Yes, this may have *something* to do with it.

Our family has listened to Jos Dasen ever since I could remember. His recordings played on our old record player, and sunk into the very depths of my unformed identity. In the critical days and years of my childhood, the simplicity of mornings, the warmth of evening tea with the winter winds howling outside, the strong love of my parents – all mingled with Joe Dasen. His soft French pronunciation, the lovely melodies, the happy songs left a powerful impact.

And so it is no wonder that I came to love the French language, that I took classes in French starting from 7th grade when they were first offered, and by the time I had graduated from high school, had visited Paris twice. During the first visit I made a promise to myself to return in five, six years, to live and study there as a college student. I did return, and that year of my life was like no other, before or after.

Judging by my dreams, my love for Paris is as strong as my love has been for the most important men in my life. The dreams are almost always tinted with longing, with excitement at the prospect of a reunion, with a powerful sense of loss. It’s as if Paris was the lover who died at the height of our romance. Now I look for it, yearn for it, miss it. But it is nowhere to be found. Most dreams end in frustration. I am in Paris but cannot wander around freely. I am stuck in some shabby corner of a dilapidated house, gazing out at the Eiffel Tower but unable to come closer. If I do walk around, I invariably get lost. I discover dank passageways, strange people beckon me to come closer, I lose my bearings in a labyrinth of rues and avenues. Eventually I wake up and make mental notes to explore those parts of Paris that I dream about more fully next time I am there.

Why does it keep coming back to me? I have not been back in 7 years, and yet, it’s as if I just left. Maybe I had not stayed there long enough? Maybe its influence on me was so powerful, that the aftershocks are rocking me still. I came there in the fall of my third year in college with my boyfriend, ten months later I left a married woman, pregnant. The man I married was not the boyfriend I came with. Maybe the drama surrounding those ten months is what’s causing my brain, unconsciously while I sleep, to continue sorting and resorting through the collateral damage.

But I think it’s more simple than that. Hemingway summed it up best when he wrote, “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”

A late October’s day I was out in a pine forest. The autumn feel was in the air, and the warm breeze sent whiffs of sweetly decaying foliage and dried grass swirling between the trunks. That night we had camped in the forest, and in the early morning it had rained. There was a lake, and now, later in the day, the water was still and cool from the rain and from the chill night. It was the perfect day for the last swim of the season.

For a while I stood ankle-deep in the silty water. The brown leaves and pine needles mingled with seashells under my toes. The breeze ran over the surface of the water and I smiled at the thought that I had, and started moving forward. Chills ran along my arms, my hairs stood on end because the water was cold. I wanted and did not want to swim. I knew it was good for me, knew I would not regret it as soon as I was in the water and swimming, but at the moment I was warm, and dry. The thought tickled me: within a couple of seconds, or minutes, my state will be completely different. I will not be warm and dry, but cold, wet, alive, moving, breathing, feeling my heart beat, blowing bubbles in the water and feeling it slip between my outstretched fingers. I blocked the capricious part of me, and coaxed the rest to continue moving forward – knee deep, waist deep. I took a deep breath. This was it: no turning back now. I grinned and pushed off.

Of course I did not regret it. I swam and looked at the world around me through the vantage point of a turtle. How enchanting it looked. Water rippling outwards in all directions, cattails swaying in the wind, pines looming onshore. An old wooden platform extending out into the water. Green hills rolling on the other shore. Behind them – the forest. And I realized that at times like this life becomes cyclical, not linear.

I remembered my childhood. As a child, I perceived life extending back behind me and forward ahead of me in two dimensions. Events were looked forward to, happened, and drifted into the past while new events appeared on the horizon. For several years my family went to vacation in rural Lithuania, and in the lazy summertime Lithuania had the stuff my dreams were made of: pines, sandy hills with bronze and rust-colored earth, mushrooms, lakes, berries, squirrels. And there was silt between fingers, and turtles peeked out between the lily pads. The conifers stood tall and warm, the sun shimmered between the leave and if you squinted just so, you could look straight into it. And the lake of many years ago flowed seamlessly into the lake that engulfed me now, and the child and the adult melded into one living, breathing organism, into one joyful soul.

I came out of the water reborn, fresh, young. What a wonderful swim I had, one day in late October.


Что, если все-таки переиначить?
Что, если якорь поднять?
Взять курс на южный, тропический остров
И новую жизнь там начать?

Вот парус надулся под ветром попутным
И шхуна стремится вперед.
А там впереди уже пальмы под солнцем
И кто-то вдоль пляжа бредет.

Виднеется там перломутровый замок
И тают в заре гамаки.
Качаясь так мирно среди эвкалиптов
И зелени липкой мазки

Укутывают одинокую деву
Которая к морю идет
Темнеет и небо, и зелень, и тени
Крадуться, а шхуна плывет.

Я вижу как сблизились обе фигуры
И стало уж очень темно
Вот гром разкатился, и молния дико
Сверкнула, встрехнув полотно…

Что, если ярости ей не хватило
Разбить мой корабль по полам
Увидив её только глаз я прикрыла
На пляж посмотрела, а там

Седит на песке старичек, и корыто
Лежит рядом с ним, на боку
А возле сежу я, и тоже — разбита
И переиначить уже не могу.

Tired Love

Squinted eyes before the morrow
Wanders silently
Sighs wet leaves of sorrow

In the morning gray and sullen
Mists creep through the cracks
Lover, child, unshaven, hollow
Come, behind I follow.

Modling my affections waver
Under your caress
Overflowing carcass of emotion
Onto me impress.

Linger, tingle and remain
Much too long
Temptation varnish.
Sticks upon your hands of sand

Lately we have ceased desire
Half-turned shoulder;
In the corner sitting wired,
So tired.

The first poem is a feeble attempt at writing poetry in Russian, written several weeks ago. The second poem was written almost a decade ago. The two seem to somehow resonate together…Photographs mine.

Night Landscape by Ilya Pyankov

Nineteen years ago, in December of 1991, the Soviet Union was finally, officially dissolved from a conglomeration of republics under a single rule to a commonwealth of independent states, the Baltic States, and Russia. The signing of the Belavezha Accords and the Alma-Ata Protocol would herald the beginning of new socio-economic life for many of the former Soviet Union republics. It would also plunge Russia into a deep recession where it was to languish until the end of the century. Food was being given out on food stamps and delivered in trucks, grocery store shelves were empty, people went to work – but were not getting paid. For the millions of Russians who weathered that difficult winter in expectation of a bright future in the months to come, the following years brought only disappointment. Struggle. Depression. But in the early nineties, when the curtain was just settling down, some felt it was time to flee.

Of course, as a child living in Russia I was not aware that much of this was going on that fateful winter. I just had the feeling that something was about to happen, something which would change my life, fundamentally and permanently. My parents and grandparents made an effort not to publicize the fact, because there was a chance that it would not happen if the wrong people found out. We-the-children were told, and were allowed to tell a few of our friends. It hardly mattered though, nobody believed us anyway. But finally the day arrived. The dream came true.

Nineteen years ago today, we moved to America.

I remember the anticipation, the surreal feeling that we were moving to the Promise Land. In kindergarten in Russia once a month, if we were lucky, we’d get a third of a banana for lunch as a special desert along with the usual buckwheat and hotdogs. But in America, you could go to the store and buy a whole banana! Or even two. America was the country of the fantastical, unattainable future. Moving there was the equivalent of moving to Mars. But one unexpected day my sister and I were told that Dad had been offered a position at the Cancer Research Center in Rochester, NY, and that soon we would pack up our four suitcases and move.

That last night I could not sleep. We had arrived at the grandparents’ house the evening before because they lived much closer to the airport than we did. The flight was early the next morning, and we would have to take off to the airport while it was still dark. This circumstance shrouded the departure in mystery and made it all the more exciting. Some of the parents’ close friends and relatives came in the evening, to celebrate our departure, to say their goodbye’s. Dad’s position was offered for three years, but I suspect everyone knew that the goodbye could be for longer. And so at night, I got up and headed for the bathroomю As I walked down the hall, I could still hear the soft laughter and familiar chatting in the living room. At that precise moment, everyone had gathered together for a last photograph, and I peered in behind them, nobody seeing me but the camera lens as the shutter closed.

A snapshot: family sitting on chairs, standing next to a table full of traditional Russian dishes, hugging, smiling, and behind them, a sleepy, rag-doll, messy-haired, pajamaed child looking straight into the camera from the dark hallway.

Then came the drive. The flight. Incredible meals on the plane. Tea bags. Look mama, it’s a magic bag! You put it in the water and it makes tea! Layover in Germany. Look at that toilet! Arrival in New York City. Everyone speaking in a different language. Trying to find our great-aunt who was supposed to greet us and take us to her apartment in Manhattan. Mama, look at that man, – he’s all brown! Asparagus for dinner. Sleep. Seven bridges seen from the aunt’s 42nd floor suite. New York, New York.

Finally. Train ride. Ham sandwiches on rye bread. Loving the ham, hating the rye. Snow. More snow.

Dad had arrived two weeks prior to find us a place in Rochester and start settling down a bit, so he picked us up from the train station with his boss (on his boss’ car). And we are home! Compared to our apartment in St.Petersburg this is a palace! No, this is a town-home! Two stories AND a basement! Carpet! Playground!

Dad smiles and tells us to take a look in the fridge (which stretches from the floor to the CEILING!). We peek inside.

And inside, there are bananas.

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