We lived on the top floors of gray apartment buildings whose brick sides held a tall drink of dry blue air struck through with yellow sunlight in every season and threaded with mobiles of black swallows in summer.
We met in winter. You stood on the gray crusty snow next to a gray wooden teeter-totter. You were dressed in a little gray tweed coat. The continental sun made a sharp El Lissitzky drawing on the asphalt. I asked what your name was; you asked me what grade I was in. I said I was in second, and you said: “Ha! Second grade is way too easy! Third grade – now, that’s hard.”
Thus began the oddball friendship of our scholarly minds.
You used to say that you and I came from the same dumpster.
For a long time, I thought everybody played like we did. After we stopped being friends, I kept looking for you in other girls – and they all came slightly foreign. From different dumpsters.
We spent one whole late-summer month bluestering in the courtyard. You made up whiny little creatures called Sinyusiki the Bluesters, and we played like we were them. The rules were simple: the game was a whine opera. The Bluesters would shake, jump up and down, and extemporize various complaints in song punctuated by this refrain performed in chorus: “We’re stinky! We’re blue! We’re the Bluesters! Boo-hoo!”
We spent two weeks making up palindromes, and then another two weeks making up epic stories in which all notional words began with the same letter. The most productive initial letter in Russian is П, we found. It provides a preponderance of power. Pyotr plus Praskovya performed plenty of peripatetic peregrinations with prowess upon that preponderance in our picaresque plots.
Other neighborhood kids played team games. We hated team games. We played Badminton Cities. It’s a combination of badminton and the game of cities. You would serve me the birdie and name a city; I volley, and at the same time name a city which begins with the letter on which the name of your city ended. Moskva-Abakan-Nakhodka-Achinsk-Kazan-Nalchik-crud: the birdie flies across the fence into the terrifying adjoining backyard of the abortion clinic. Glad we have a spare birdie.
We spent a month of virtuous mornings jogging before the start of our school-day. The two of us and the famous elderly professor of medicine from your block were the only three joggers known to us in a non-jogging town, a non-jogging time.
Where did your parents get you? How did they manage to procure you? Your heavy mother with her hair chemically set in short permanent curls was permanently resting heavily on her bed, reading Arthur Haley’s Airport. Your heavy father was always going off somewhere in his white Zhiguli sedan. They never jogged in the mornings; they never ran at all. Although, what could I possibly really know about them? I was only a dumb kid. How could I fathom what palindromes played in the lives of others?
Still: your parents wouldn’t buy you a bike. They must have been afraid you’d hurt yourself. And my parents did buy me a bike, a low-framed green Salut. I was twelve then.
I was twelve and you were thirteen. I’d come to your house and you’d be doing homework. I’d peer into your papers and see long rows of round math symbols arranged into equations I didn’t understand. Or you’d be knitting, and I’d see long rows of round knits and purls, arranged into equations I didn’t understand. You were the top student in your class, and very competent in making macrame owls and flowerpots. You were older than me, always and ever older.
Except for the bike.
We were peers on the bike. I drove you around on the back wheel, and then you drove me around on the back wheel. Our street was virtually traffic-free: very few car-owners. The first skateboarders in our town would race along the same sidewalks as we did, past the bank, past the square, past the theater. It was cool to own a skateboard, but to own a bike was not too shabby either.
It was not too shabby to own a faux-leather briefcase and to use it as a schoolbag. You had one and I had one. Mine was not sturdy enough for the six big fat Soviet textbooks I carried to school daily. Every day, the briefcase would crack apart right in the middle of the street on my way home and spill its guts on the asphalt. I’d crawl around on all fours, searching the ground for the minute screws that had fallen out of the bottom of the briefcase. I soon had to resort to carrying my fancy briefcase underarm. My parents laughed at me, yet vanity prevailed.
At the time, certain classes at school were special units or special forces made and maintained at the discretion of the teaching staff. Ours was the VYFB, or the Volunteer Youth Fire Brigade. We were not allowed to go near any fires; however, we were issued nifty red VYFB membership cards. I still have mine somewhere. Yours was the YTP, or the Youth Traffic Patrol. You did do some traffic work, if not patrolling; for instance, you went to elementary classrooms and gave talks about how it was a pretty bad idea to jaywalk. One time, you participated in a big important street patrolling parade. That parade was the beginning of our end.
You needed a bike for the Big Bicycle Parade. Your group was supposed to ride bikes in formation, collectively, powerfully, impressively. It was part of the parade routine. You asked to borrow my bike. You borrowed my bike. Right after the parade, the bike got stolen. Yessiree. Some filthy thieving ass rode off into the sunset on my green Salut.
Your class dame gave me her own Prima bike to reimburse me for my Salut. That switch was totally an upgrade: an adult touring bike for a run-of-the-mill youth bike! Not too shabby. It must have killed the poor woman to forfeit such a nice, well-tuned, hard-to-come-by velocipede.
I stopped by your house shortly after the bike debacle. You opened your door a crack and said that your parents had banned you from being friends with me. They said that they’d seen me wearing lipstick; that I was a girl of uncultured behavior; that I was a poor influence; that I was interfering with your studies.
That lipstick story was a complete fabrication!
I didn’t insist on staying friends with you then. I didn’t know how to insist on anything, defend myself, advocate for myself until I was at least 25 years old. So, I just became sad and walked away.
I went down from your top floor to the basement of my tall apartment building, filled with trash and spun glass, to the attic of my tall apartment building, filled with guano, where my strange new selves and my strange new friends spent time wearing lipstick, gossiping about boys, cutting class, smoking stolen Bulgarian cigarettes and otherwise engaging in uncultured behavior.
And you? Where did you go? What’s become of you? Did you turn tall, heavy, sad? What’s become of you? Are you an electrical engineer, a mother of two, a Jehovah’s witness?
Remember the song you loved to sing with a bop, and a flop of your short flaxen hair, and a squint in your deep round cornflake-blue eyes?
“I will not be lying; I’m so fond of running! Be there frost, be there sun, I just run and run!”
Do you just run and run?