Monday, April 13, 2015

Fiction #59: Vladimir Cirovski

Nadja and Natasha

I noticed it each time I visited her apartment, the copy of The Poetry of Pablo Neruda that I lent her, supporting a potted plant on her window sill. Occasionally I would walk over and tend to the plant expecting her to notice the connection by hint of the proximity between my book and body – she added water. A potted plant being watered plopped on a paperback – Natasha was like that – careless in a way you find charming, if you, like me, worry that a competence for the mundane indicates the absence of creativity.  She wore loose fitting clothes that sagged about her as if their main function was to prevent her body from gathering dust, but whereas some women dress like that to conceal their bodies, on Natasha the fabric caught against her curves and drew your attention to the tangent point. 

Natasha often disappeared. She returned with food: pirozhki, blini, and aged asiago. At first I worried that she had an Italian ex in addition to a loving babushka. Was I ever jealous? Sometimes I would see her with male friends, leaning in to leave a smudge of lipstick on their cheek, and at once, everything save for the two of us,  pulled apart and sped away in particles; then she would turn toward me and smile and the universe was restored. Don’t be sceptical, that’s exactly what it felt like. I never asked her about her absences; they lasted a day to three. At first I didn’t want to appear needy and then I realised that I had set a precedent and thus created a rule.   

I met Natasha while I was enrolled in an MA program in international affairs (course work only) a few years into my career at DFAIT/DFATD (the names and acronyms change). I had a friend named Binyamin from my undergrad days who was a PhD student during that time. I would often stop in before or after a seminar to chat about our fantasy football teams in that never ending pursuit of vicarious athletic achievement.   Natasha’s office was two doors down. She was studying for an MA in history (with thesis), but had a teaching assistantship related to Russian history or literature – I can’t remember – as part of her scholarship. Yes, she was seven years younger than me, but age had nothing to do with it. I assure you I have “Maggie Mae” on my Ipod. Anyway, I walked past her office one day and took a seeming incidental peek through the open door.  I was curious because she seemed to be the only TA who had undergrads – almost all male and nervous – visiting during the lonely time for TAs between exams and paper deadlines. She was beautiful. I walked in and sat down across from her, it was the kind of gesture you attribute to automatism – like I’d regressed to a toddler like state in which I might wander over and grab a handful of boob - rather than sheer boldness. I spoke first:

-  Zrdajvsvoite
-  Zrdajvsvoite .......Hello?
-  Hi..........Do you want to get a coffee?
-  Spasibo

Much later , when were in that phase when a couple is in the midst of trying to discover something magical , fated about their relationship – you know that what I’m talking about; how when even an improbable connection confirms how it was destined to be – I  asked her why she had agreed to go for coffee.  You looked catatonic, she said. I thought I’d have to lock you in if I didn’t take you with me.

Natasha would sometimes speak to me in Russian, which I had studied to satisfy a foreign language requirement in grad school. I really didn’t understand a word. Wait, let me try. Ja ne ponimau russkomo horosho. (I hope I used the correct case) She would smile and scratch the top of my head like she did for her Dachshund when it barked at the full length mirror.

Of course I wrote poetry. I didn’t read very much though. I admit I was in love with Ana Akhmatova. My love for literary Russian women began with Natahsa Rostova. It was only later that it progressed from fiction to real albeit dead women. As I was saying, for me the point of poetry was self expression not passive appreciation. Think about it, why does anyone care about the local arts scene, it’s generally mediocre, in the sense that the artists have talent but their work isn’t the kind that makes you want to evangelise, like a pimply long haired virgin who just discovered a new band. I think what we want is to be around the creation of art, the process itself; feeling like we’re part of it, and the final product is irrelevant.

I know I sound pretentious but I’m trying to be honest. For example, I don’t smoke because these days that’s just not done.  However, when travelling in parts of Europe I keep a lighter next to my cup of espresso as a conversation starter and to be useful for any smoker at nearby table caught without a light. I can’t resist the urge to carry a small notebook to write in. In my younger days I liked to withdraw from the general conversation at a table, having being interrupted by the muse’s visit, and scrawl a poem out on a napkin. It’s embarrassing when I’m recognised as a civil servant.

Most of my days are spent trying to cultivate the favour of men dressed in ill fitting beige pants and navy blazers. Somewhere along the way, regardless of family background, the Canadian foreign service adopted as its model the aristocratic bearing of the 18th Century. Nothing, no matter how shocking , dangerous or otherwise, discomforting , is greeted with anything other than indulgent smile or the sigh of one who’s lived this life once before. The normal means of social interaction is a hand extended to your shoulder to draw you in as if to exchange an important intimacy. I am sure that there is someone in a psyche ward, somewhere, furiously scratching out pictures on the floor with a blunt utensil, of Canadian diplomats being bludgeoned with a stapler. I have observed that a certain level of composure in some people drives others insane.

As you might have suspected I have a problem with romantic relationships. Eventually it becomes unavoidably clear that the woman I am with is no longer the person I wanted her to be. With Natasha, I caught her watching soap operas. Spanish language and streamed on the internet. She was crying. I had to pour myself a scotch. It was like finding myself on someone else’s Facebook page captured in a photograph taken from an unflattering angle. Other men walk in to find a woman, naked in the midst of a scenario they may otherwise watch on the internet and jerk off to. Me? Soap operas! Not even the chance to act out a crime of passion.  I couldn’t bring myself to shoot her lap top, we waited three hours (was it from 5am?) before the electronics store opened up for the Boxing Day sale. If you don’t understand the Ottawa winter, let me just say that for people with other options, it’s deemed uninhabitable.

Look, I know that people change, but when we say that what we usually mean is that someone has become: a drunk, lost a job or gained a lot of weight. Personality defects were always evident but were deemed tolerable. Okay, I was being a little dramatic about the soap opera but you need a turning point to explain what comes next. Her tendency to omit the definite article when she spoke quickly started to bother me. This was a woman who was earning her rent payment as a professional translator. Please.  But really, the omissions weren’t just grammatical, everything else seemed lost in translation, her smile came at the wrong moments, somewhere between idiotic and mocking. Did I mention how she patted my head?

All relationships are an implicit negotiation, indeed the things that aren’t verbalised but communicated by gestures, and the incongruities between tone and words or tone and facial expressions – to say nothing of extended silence - are how we bargain these things out. I was competent, proficient in both official languages and able to navigate public sector databases (trust me, this can inspire awe).  Hell I even have a navy blazer – where men once kept a shield or sword – hanging on a hook in my office for those emergencies when I need to burst into the scene of meeting that was called behind my manager’s back. In the end you could say that Natasha was supposed to be opening up new vistas not extending the tunnel I was looking through.

Believe it or not I tend to form relationships easily with women. I don’t mean I’m a Casanova, rather I mean that women seem to like talking to me. In fact my best friend is a woman, which I recognise does not make me immune to charges of sexism. Nadja, was born in Croatia, but doesn’t remember it nor does she understand Russian or the Cyrillic alphabet. We met in high school and have stayed in touch since. She had made unfortunate hairstyle choices between the tenth and twelfth grade and I didn’t fit in anywhere other than student government. Our first conversation occurred in the library. There is something of a physical resemblance between Nadija and Natasha but now that Nadja has cut her hair short she looks less like Natasha. I was once comforted by how similar they were yet distinct, opening up of two different yet familiar future possibilities.

Whenever I have a problem I discuss it with Nadja. She listens to me peeking over a mug of green tea, with her eyes that sometimes are a sky that promises to go on forever and other times are clouded. Her smile is the sun against her eyes and when the corners of her mouth are soft and rounded, on those grey days, it’s the sparkle behind the clouds.  It took me a while to come with that.

Nadja’s boyfriend, Anthony, travels a lot. He works for a humanitarian aid NGO and is overseas depending on where the latest catastrophe is. (Some women find negotiating with war lords for the safe passage of aid convoys sexy. Derring-do, with a heart of gold. Spare me!) He also hikes and canoes, and even does some kayaking. To be fair, I don’t think he can keep up with me in a spin class. Anthony once told me that a lot of things in life are likely Harley Davidson: some people want to live the life others just want to own the merchandise. I suspect there was an insult in that.

Needless to say, Nadja often finds herself with a lot of time for me. She likes to cook and sometimes sends me a link to a recipe with a dinner invitation attached. Have I alone noticed that relationships became complicated once women started wearing yoga pants everywhere? I don’t want to say that Nadja can be critical but she often leaves me wondering why we’re friends. Nadja buys organic fruits and “ethical meat” (WTF!), she writes papers for academic journals that get her invited to conferences around the world and gets emails from hopeful department heads with vacancies in the offing. I admit that she’s smarter than me. She does yoga and she has decided to have children. I mean she’s looked at her future teaching advising and service obligations and blocked off time for pregnancy.  I swear I’ve had nightmares in which I die and am told I’m going to come back to life as a woman and when I look in the mirror it’s Nadja. 

Of course I once kissed Nadja. Okay, I put my hands on her breasts as well. She let the kiss finish naturally enough, and then drew her hands up my body to my chest, casually, so as to part my arms. Sit down she said, fixing her eyes in the direction of my usual spot on the couch. She went to make tea and returned with her bowl with a handle and resumed a story she had been telling me earlier in the day over the phone. 

Finally after a period of suffering in silence, like I was keeping a toothache to myself, I went to see Nadja to explain the situation. Nadja, I am sure, was one of those children of penetrating intelligence who saw through the curtain and spoiled the Wizard of Oz for the rest her friends. I was hoping she would help me understand what had gone wrong though, if I may say, she wouldn’t always be tactful about it.

Nadja answered the door, her brows lustrous, red and puffy. I gaped.

-    What happened to you?
-    Waxing.

I must say that other than high heels which are indefensible from any perspective there are many things that we as men must thank women for doing to look pretty.

I moved to the couch while she returned to the washroom, leaving the door open. She leaned forward toward the mirror leaving her bottom half visible in profile. I picked up a photo book from her coffee table; a collection of portraits by a Bosnian friend of hers, who smoked a pack a day and owned a Doberman, listened to bad music and didn’t like me judging by the fact that she called me an asshole three – no – four times. (It’s a long story but I’m still bitter)

-    What’s wrong?

I tried looking at her innocently as she dabbed a small hand towel about her face.

-    Why do you ask?
-    Normally, when you don’t think I notice, you stare at my ass
-    Don’t make fun of me. And stop sticking out your tongue. It’s obscene.
-    Really what’s wrong?

She came out of the bathroom and dropped into the corner of couch. I’ve never met anyone who could look so relaxed.

-    Do you remember Rebecca?
-    Ah, yes. Your blonde ambition phase. What about her?
-    It wasn’t like that

Najda finds that the fact that I may have dated a woman for her looks solely a continual source of merriment.

-    Anyway, she once told me that she avoided dating guys more into going to the gym than her...something about being made to feel about not doing enough.
-    Yes
-    Well, the other day Natasha says to me: Why are you looking at me like that? Like what, I say.

And she says something about me reminding myself that I have to get a new washer for the faucet.

(Reader, it was a complicated feeling; at once it was penetrating and alluring. I mean it had literary merit.)

-    There`s nothing wrong with Natasha

I thought on this for a moment.

-    Why don`t you like her?
-    That’s not true. I do like her
-    But...
-    But nothing. You’re my friend, not her. I see her with you. That’s it. So, tell me. What’s wrong?

Her tone, as she said that, was reminiscent of my mother trying to tell my sister and I what a wonderful time we were having.

-    Just feeling unsettled. Like I’m watching home movies of my life.
-    Idiot.
-    What?

Now she was my mother teaching me to count.

-    Why do you come here?
-    You know why?
-    Remind me.
-    I feel comfortable here. I can relax and talk... and you’re a good cook.
-    If you’re comfortable with me then why aren’t you comfortable with yourself?

I didn’t stay very long thereafter. Nadja was sometimes unhelpful but clearly had a future post-retirement as a motivational speaker.

So what was wrong? I mentioned the soap opera, but there was more. You know the look, when our eyes widen then refocus. It’s the surprise of being presented with the unexpected. Natasha inspired those looks among my friends and colleagues.  She’s one of those people who do things with the kind of grace that makes everyone think: I should try, it doesn’t look that hard. People love being put at ease, especially by someone they’re prepared to hate. In time she became less a name added on to an invitation out of courtesy but someone my friends’ girlfriends had on speed dial.

The more she became part of my official life; the more nostalgic I was for those times when we were just a pair. On the walk to her place, a cosy one bedroom in a refurbished heritage home, it felt like all the packing I was wrapped in peeled off and by the time I got to her second floor door, the real me was uncovered. I never really asked much about her life, I preferred to look at her in bold colours with a strong outline against a blurred landscape. I don’t want you to think I am worried about domesticity. I have a large mortgage that comes with two bedrooms, a balcony and underground parking, plus stainless steel appliances and granite countertops – the final touch – a frighteningly overpriced vacuum.  In other words all the essentials to a happy home life.

Natasha usually showed up at my place with her knapsack over her shoulder, inside was what the rest of us keep in a drawer of our desk plus her laptop and a United Nations delegation of chocolate. Invariably she was carrying a tray of coffees which may be the reason she never slept enough. Nadja is also up at all hours and chatty, which means I never get enough sleep.  The tragedy of insomnia: No one ever thinks about how it affects the loved ones.

I would buy éclairs that Natasha enjoyed from a shop nearby. I live on the periphery of Yuppieville otherwise known as the Glebe. Everyone’s favourite neighbourhood except the long time residents who worry that it’s losing its authenticity. The best thing about buying Natasha éclairs was that I loved kissing her lips with a trace of custard and chocolate. A quick test of woman’s character is watching her lick melted chocolate off her finger tips. The woman of true grace never loses any of her elegance, the earthy type could be looped before the mind’s eye or in cyberspace, and the other ninety percent of women look like hicks.

The last time I saw her in the capacity of her boyfriend was when she threw a half dozen of those éclairs at me. Thankfully she had too much respect for coffee to use it as a statement of termination. Understand, she wasn’t hysterical, in fact she didn’t say much at all. After throwing the éclairs, she took a deep breath and stared at me in that way women have that goes beyond the leering inquisitiveness that men measure a woman’s body with, this look says something more: I see all of you. Then she spoke: Bastard. She gathered her things and left, leaving me feeling what Eliot said: pinned and wriggling on the wall.

When we break up with women, one of our fears is that they’ll begin to spread rumours about us, namely that we’re bad in bed: obviously false, malicious and desperate. I won’t say I’m not curious about what’s going to be heard in that regard but it’s not my biggest fear. What I really fear is being called ordinary. I like to think that my face (at a flattering angle) stands out in a woman’s memory, or my voice or my touch, whatever she liked most. I hate the idea that I’m going to lose shape and colour and become a blur or a shadow.

It was only a month later that I saw Natasha again. It was a book fair organised by local charity that used the money raised to buy textbooks for a schools in Kenya. One of the organisers was the wife of a former colleague of mine, who was herself employed at our international development agency. A wonderful woman really, one of those people that if you hear a bad word said about, it makes you angry. Natasha was volunteering as a cashier. I watched her take people’s money. Her charity billboard of a t-shirt caught, maybe with static, on her hip and breast. Her hairstyle was as always, light brushed, more about rearranging the natural waves that beckoned for a caress. Her face lively, as if she were watching some wonder unfold on screen, not making chit chat with the civil servants and students who made up the neighbourhood. What could I do? I hid. I had to observe her for a while, if for no other reason to find out if she was dating anyone.

I don’t know what possessed me but my divine punishment was standing behind a shelf of Harlequin romance novels, trying to look occupied by paperbacks featuring buff bare-chested men. Anyhow, I saw him. He snuck up behind her and put his hands on her hips. She peeked back and they kissed. The man was about six feet tall (shorter than me) with short hair and fashionable stubble, wearing khaki Dockers and a red Lacoste polo shirt. I admit he was better looking me. On the bright side he gave off the stench of bureaucracy, strong enough that it wafted all the way over to me. After taking a circuitous route toward the checkout to a cashier as far away from Natasha as possible, I quickly paid, leaving the change, for the kids I said, and hurried home.

Later that evening I knocked on Nadja’s door. Anthony, opened the door. He looked thinner and with eyes reddened from a lack of sleep and with all the bodily slackness of a man who’s just had a burden lifted from his shoulders: no doubt late flights, too much sun and the weariness of saving the suffering children of the world. For some reason I wondered whether Nadja had kept him up. He called out for Nadja, who told us that she was coming, and walked back into the kitchen. I sat on the couch watching Anthony fiddle over the kitchen bar with the kettle. I have a fresh pot of coffee he said. Somehow he always spoke to me from a distance or at odd angles. Nadja eased into the corner like a long limbed feline as Anthony placed a tray on the coffee table then wandered away.

She was waiting for me to speak first.

-    I saw Natasha today.
-    And?
-    She’s dating someone.
-    Of course.

She said it with a smile that implied previous knowledge.

-    She’s ordinary. I said
-    Yes, just like me......and just like you.

Now with a bright smile.

-    And it never bothered you?
-    What?
-    About me? Being ordinary.
-    No, it was always you who couldn’t see me.

Just then Anthony came back in the room. He stopped behind Naja and kissed her on the top of her head. She reached back and drew his arm down over her chest, clutching it in both arms. Her smile shone and her eyes focused on mine. This time they were clear and blue but I didn’t want to look.


I have been employed at various times in the machine tool industry and the federal public service. I blog about politics and public policy at I am a fan of the Henry Kissinger, Manchester United and the Dallas Cowboys, I am not sure which of these represents the greatest moral failure.

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