“Dad, I need an advice,” my young son just entered my office.
“Sure, have a seat.”
He, indeed, has a seat, just as I intended. I welcome my child to parley with a grand gesture, “?”
“There’s a girl in my school... I’m really into her.”
“Yeah. I don’t know what to do,” he looks like he doesn’t.
“Tell me about that… bird, my boy. Do you know her?”
“Kind of. I say “hello” to her but she only answers when I’m with some other girl that she knows, and if she’s with someone, she just acts like I don’t exist,” my son speaks without any accent, he was born and grew up in this country. “And it’s not like she’s playing hard to get. I think she just doesn’t like me.”
“Kid,” I still have traces of my Russian accent, “the first thing – you’re in luck. You don’t feel like it now, but you will, trust me. And let me tell you why.” I look at the clock (it’s half past six) and pour myself a glass of whiskey, “Care for a soda?”
“Sure thing, thanks.”
“Karolina, can you bring me a single bottle of that sweet carbonated drink, please?”
“On it, Sir,” a voice in the loudspeaker on my table.
My old polish secretary appears and a glass bottle appears too.
“So, what was I talking about? Right, your luck.” I point at the ceiling and lose my tie a little, “See, there are types of people that come into your life and leave it without a mark. Those people, you don’t care about them.”
“Some people, like, for example, your gorgeous mother, they come into your life and make your life better. And if you ever lose those people, you lose a part of yourself.”
I smell my whiskey: it smells like a horse and I don’t understand why the hell did I drink it in the first place. I finish the glass, anyway.
“But some people, they turn your life into hell. It seems that you can’t escape their grip. But it’s not true. You can. Have I ever told you about my childhood?”
“No,” he clearly indicates that he never heard about my childhood, “you never told a thing about your life in Russia.”
“My boy, it’s time now.
My dad was an orphan, a gypsy man with a nest of black, wavy hair. He wore a ring in his ear and loved his guitar as much as he loved my mother. My mother was a daughter of a Russian merchant. She was tall and beautiful, and her voice was as golden as her hair. He was twenty; she was sixteen when they met.
My grandfather built himself out of nothing. They say that he stole some silverware and that was his starting capital. He was a fish trader. He used to travel a lot… back and forth, with fish loads… so, he was on the road during one very cold winter, got sick and died.”
“Of a cold?”
“Yes.” I pour myself another glass of that terrible whiskey, “His wife – my grandma that is – took over his business. She never traveled from her town, but she oversaw every move made by his former associates. To my knowledge, she expanded her husband’s – my grandad that is – endeavors–”
“Sir, I’m going home if you don’t need me anymore,” my secretary again.
“Yeah-yeah, sure. See you tomorrow.”
“It’s Friday today, Sir.”
“See you on Monday, then, bye!” I silence the intercom. “What was I talking about? Oh, yeah. My mother had to run away from home, because her parents hated my dad. They travelled across the… let’s call it ‘state’. Then they settled in a small town, I don’t even remember its name.”
“Is it far from Moscow?”
“In American terms – no. In Russian – it is so far that you can consider it another country. It’s closer to Saint-Petersburg – It used to be the capital back in the days… it’s not even Saint-Petersburg anymore,” I finish the second glass. “My dad performed at the restaurant, my mother washed dishes and served tables. So, they lived there when I was born. I was a restaurant child, kind of. My toys were cooking pots and utensils. My friends were dead animals… fish, mainly, it was a fish restaurant. And then I was four, I remember as it was yesterday, on a cold winter day, my parents died.”
I see a mix of condolence and curiosity in his eyes, “Fish poisoning?”
“No, a cold.”
I open the bottle again and have another drink of that strange horse-flavored whiskey.
“The same day I was sent to my grandmother. I never saw her before – now I had to see her every day. Son,” I hit the desk with my fist, “that woman was the worst human being I’ve ever known. If I had my pots and spoons to play with before, now I had no toys of any kind, except for a Bible and liturgical calendar.
My grandmother considered herself a deeply religious woman. In a proper Russian sense: every time she saw an official, officer or a priest, she told me to bow down to the ground. Especially to the priests and high-ranking officials, the higher the rank – the lower the bow. I’m glad I never saw the Tsar, she would’ve forced me to dig through the mud with my nose.
I was barely able to hang out at the streets. Every time I said, ‘Nana, can I go to the shore?’ I heard, ‘Oh no-no, I feel so sick, my boy, I want you to stay at home!’ And so I stayed, because I was afraid that my grandmother would die if I left. But of course she was perfectly fine to go outside if she needed too. Her constant screaming at the coming and going clerks also indicated high levels of health.
Every winter she commanded the maids to heat up the stove to such a degree that there was no air left in the house, only the destructive presence of heat. She would dress me up in all the warm clothing there was so I wouldn’t catch a cold, and when I passed out from the sun-surface-like temperature she would scream at the maid for heating the stove too much.
I had no friends, because no one was allowed at our house. And that house smelled like fish, that’s what I remember. I managed to befriend our very angry dog, though. It lived in the yard and my grandmother used to kick it every time she walked past him. Our maids fed it leftovers, and I usually gave him a piece of something tasty. It was scared of my grandmother, loved me, hated everybody else. That’s including the maids and my tutors. I saw about twenty or thirty of them because of my grandma’s temper and our dog’s jaws.”
The sun is already settling. It cuts the volume of the room through the blinds and hides the view of the port from my eyes. This staggering view, view of my fortune…
“What?” I look at my son.
“You stopped talking.”
“Sorry. Why would someone put horse in whiskey?”
“I… don’t know?” he doesn’t know.
“Sorry, son. What was your question, again?”
“About that girl.”
“Sure! The girl! Alright. I finally was getting out when I reached the tender age of twelve. Just before the First World War some philanthropist built the first school in our town and my grandmother finally decided that it will be fine for me to go there. In fact she just tried to cut on her expenses, while raising the fish prices. There were about five kids at our school, because everybody else was already fishing. Son, that whole town smelled like fish.”
I gulp my third glass. Or is it forth? Who counts them, anyway. But that’s an interesting taste, I’m telling you.
“Every day on my way to school I saw this girl, who helped her father clean the streets. She was probably older than me, definitely taller than me. With beautiful, full” – I show ‘full’ with my hand – “lips. Cute smile, blue eyes. Dear god! So I was just passing by, looking at her, sometimes she looked back, but we never talked to each other. One day we were on our way to church, on Sunday. I saw that girl again, and my grandmother saw that too. She pulled my arm, ‘Don’t you look at that girl. A good girl should have thin lips. Thick lips mean that the girl is lusty. Good girl should have wide hips and a flat butt, and that one has narrow hips and a big butt. She is a Tatar filth.’
But of course I looked at her all the time. And one day… I finally spoke to her.”
I smile, I feel warm and good. I feel that intricate whiskey rushing through my body, bringing the pleasure of my old memories.
“And was she cold and hostile to you?” my son looks at me.
“Nah, we hit it off. My first love, Alia. Boy, was she gorgeous,” I shake my head, trying to shake in the forgotten beauty of that girl and shake out the image of my grandma.
“Dad, you started with ‘the people who turn your life into hell’, and how I’m ‘in luck’. ”
“Oh, you’re right. Your dad is so stupid. One day I told my grandmother that I’m leaving. And she said, ‘But I’m going to die without you! You should take care of your grandma!’ And I said, ‘Screw you, old witch.’ I took nothing from her, got out and never came back. I left that fish smelling town, stole some silverware from an abandoned mansion, and moved to America. Sometimes I still feel that fish smell in my nostrils… I hate fish… I hate it so much.”
“That’s why we sell canned fish and only canned fish,” I point at the poster with these exact words and my smiling face on it.
“And what happened to your grandma?”
“She died. You want some of that amazing whiskey?”
“Mom says I’m too young to drink.”
“About that girl. At my school…”
“Forget her, son, just forget her. There’s plenty of fish in the sea.”