by Nadia Ghent
“The future isn’t waiting,” a Buffalo billboard says. Pictures of towering children outside the empty offices of Upstate Youth Empowerment Now aren’t waiting. They are chattering, leaping, singing, doing, caught in mid-motion, blown up beyond life-size. But they aren’t talking about my future. I am walking down Main Street looking for signs of urban life besides the static billboards across the street. Five o’clock, and you could lie down in the middle of Main for a restful nap. A few people pass me, not many. All the commuting action is taking place down Tupper, cars vaulting across the intersection in an end-of-day race to the suburbs, away from this somnolent place that calls itself a city.
I step into a wine store at the corner of Tupper and Main, before the onrushing outward-fleeing traffic. I step into a different universe, upscale blonde wood and exposed brick interior, a friendly greeter pouring me tastes of Provençal rosé and a boutique vineyard white from the Willamette Valley. There are more people here than on the street outside, attracted perhaps by the late afternoon tasting, the sun filtering in through the shop’s broad windows, the cool air conditioning. There is talk of the holiday weekend and cases of Meursault for my cabin an hour north of Montreal. I am seeking something to wear away the hard edges of my lostness. Why I’m here, in this place, at this time. This isn’t a city I know.
The wine is rich, thrilling. It feels almost illicit, to be handed a glass of wine in the afternoon by a smiling stranger, in a shop surrounded by other shops that are empty, closed-up, dark. Whose future isn’t waiting? Maybe that future is around the corner, the billboard children say. I can’t read the rest of the signage even with my glasses on. I can’t read this city. But the heady wine makes the afternoon glow.
When I think of the past, it is almost as if I think in another language. My grandmother at her kitchen table, stirring cherry preserves into a glass of tea and speaking to me in Russian. Words that were thick clotted sounds rolling from her mouth in articulated clusters. She would not answer me if I spoke to her in English, but she spoiled me: warm milk at naptime, new toys, books, but only ones in Russian. New York, this city of many disappointments, where she lived with my alcoholic grandfather and his empty vodka bottles in a walk-up tenement on Second Avenue and Sixty-Third Street. Now luxury high rise buildings carpeted wall-to-wall in money. Her immigrant life, separate from this America, this culture of big cars, corn flakes, Coca-Cola, these new ideas about democracy. The Tsar would come back one day, she believed, the Romanovs not dead but incarnate, in hiding first from thuggish Stalin, then from grim Soviets. Her aristocratic past, her family and fortune, all lost in the tailspin of history. How New York was a still a foreign place to her, full of traps and deceptions, her grudging English at the grocery store. The samovar, the wooden spoons, the gilded icons she had brought with her from St. Petersburg, relics from her past that I adored.
I think of all those words that I no longer remember, and when her larynx was removed after she developed throat cancer, after decades of smoking in the Russian style, cigarette held between her thumb and forefinger, I think of the breathy sounds she made when she tried to speak, the sound I imagine of wind rushing through birch trees in a forest. The wide dark hole in her neck she covered with a crocheted bib, her voice reduced to whispers, ghosts of words. How I still could see the hole between the loose weave of threads, and how much it scared me, that nothingness. As if I could look inside this secret place where her language had disappeared.
When she could no longer speak, she tried to teach me how to read the Russian alphabet. She made booklets for me from sheets of paper ruled with dotted lines for copying, like worksheets in first grade. А, Б, В, Г, Д: one letter for each line, the first one drawn for me, the second one with arrows showing me the intended direction of the pencil strokes. Booklets with covers cut from Alba powdered milk boxes that she sewed together with ribbons, booklets that would pile up in my bedroom, never opened. Later, years after she died, guilt impelled me to study Russian. In high school, I learned to read this language I had forgotten how to speak. Feeling the unfamiliar geometry of shapes and curves as I formed the letters in Cyrillic, I imagined the lines she drew for me, the sheets with figures for copying, her steady hand, and the sound of air rushing through her throat, the sounds I could no longer understand.
Once I could read the intentions of people in a city. The dance of passing interactions, the averted eyes, the far-off stare. A drunk man crosses North Pearl Street ahead of me, and I begin to walk in the opposite direction. I don’t know my way around Buffalo, but I know the grid of these streets. I will find a parallel way to my destination. Some of these lost urban navigating skills come back to me, even in this city I do not know. What I can’t know is how to read this changing neighborhood, the layers of accumulated existence, who lives here now and why. A sign: Keep prostitution away from the West Side, and I wonder where the prostitutes are supposed to go. Is there another part of the city that is just for them? How cities change and leave behind traces of what had been before, and then the present barrels in, wipes it all away. As I approach Virginia Street, there are cigarette butts and beer cans in the gutter, hamburger wrappers, bits of French fries, discards from a life free from kitchen tables. Parked cars block my view of the street, of the danger of hurtling vehicles that claim the right-of-way. I have to wait to cross to the other side.
My life, of a kitchen and a kitchen table and four place settings at dinnertime and bedtime stories and my children and the mountains in the distance and my younger self, all layers of the past that get covered up with new things, new places that have become my life, my home. How many more years are mine to have, how many more layers are yet to form around me? Trees grow in this city, like in other cities, gnarled and twisted, with strength implicit in their rootedness to the concrete ground. The inner rings of trees that grow with time and memory, years of drought or plenty.
All the houses on this street have lush plantings in small dirt enclosures. Some have window boxes of petunias and white-tipped hostas in planters flanking broad front doors. Look at this beauty, the flowers say. Don’t look at the street, the potholes, the grit of the city settling on roofs and ledges, the signs warning prostitutes away. Where am I in this landscape, in this moment?
I reach the churchyard, and a man passes me, says hello in a way that is overly familiar, as if I would know him, should recognize him. He holds his gaze at me a fraction of a second beyond what is acceptable, but he is a stranger. He speaks to me with the softness of hope in his voice, in a way I am not comfortable with. I need the blank-eyed stare, the look that does not see, the encounter that does not happen for this to be a city I would know. Reading these streets like a language I will never understand. I walk to make my intentions clear, arms close to my side, eyes straight ahead. I am almost home, the place where I will sleep tonight, but this place is not my home. My future isn’t waiting. This is my now, my later, what I remember, what I used to know.
Nadia Ghent studied literature at Brown University and violin performance at Manhattan School of Music. Her work has appeared in Necessary Fiction, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, Psychoanalytic Dialogues, Prufrock’s Dilemma, and will be forthcoming in the anthology, Before They Were Our Mothers. She lives and writes in Rochester, NY.
SLAG GLASS CITY· Volume 4· March 2018
Header Image by Bruce Fingerhood
About Barrie Jean Borich
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Nadia – Your writing is so beautiful, so lyrical – blending your love of words and music. You lend such insight and depth to your family’s stories. Haunting. Thank you for allowing me to include “The Girl who Would Bring Back the Tsar” in the anthology, Before They Were Our Mothers.