(Written in 2011. Image by Zoya Cherkassky)
There’s a Russian woman living in my building.
Technically, she’s moving out, as evidenced by a “Furniture for Sale” sign taped downstairs by the elevator, a sign with her name, Tatyana. And though I’ve never met her, having recently moved here myself, I’m becoming acquainted with her stuff, which she’s been depositing on the “free for all” bench in the lobby.
Not that I need anything. Still, every day on my way out, I now anticipate the thrill of noticing something new on the bench, rummaging through the books, exploring the textures of the domestic accessories left behind – and piecing together the personality of their former owner.
At first, Tatyana bequeathed her legal textbooks and LSAT preparation guides to the next future attorney. That’s where our differences begin, Tatyana’s and mine, even though we’re both Russian and living in the same big city. After dipping my toes into a legal career, I quit, much to the dismay of my family, since I didn’t do it to become a doctor.
She also discarded her old copy of He’s Just Not That into You book on the bench, with page corners bent, reinforcing a practical approach to life and romance, and not like mine at all.
Russian military history books were disposed of next: pages and pages of tiny print, not even a pity picture of a Slavic warrior with broad shoulders and facial hair to spice things up.
Then, Tatyana purged her old rug and pillows. They were beige. Beige that goes with everything. Beige that decided to blend in and become an adult from its college dorm iteration of electric yellow or free-spirited fuchsia. Beige which nobody notices until it starts to irritate, like sand in a shoe.
The following weekend, a tea set materialized on the bench. Tatyana’s teacups were fragile, grandmotherly things with scalloped trim, suggesting an owner who enjoys measured sips, instead of chugging coffee by the mug and banging it down on the table when finished. Back in Russia, she probably recited poetry at family get-togethers with a big bow in her hair and took care of the classroom goldfish, while I ran around abandoned construction projects playing “Rambo” and squirting boys with water out of old shampoo bottles.
A couple of days later, Tatyana left out a bag of assorted color-coded yarn. It was just like the yarn I used for crocheting as a kid, when making strawberry-shaped potholders in red and green. But I no longer crochet, much less color-code, not even socks, on occasion. I’d left all that crafty stuff behind when immigrating. The customs and the airlines limit how much of your life you can fit into a suitcase before they start charging. Not to mention that time the post office had lost my entire box as I was moving cross-country for the third time that year.
The last thing Tatyana discarded were old CDs, front side up and arranged by genre, of course. These were international pop and soft rock musicians who got radio play, safe to like as a newly-assimilated American.
I imagined her as a lanky woman with astigmatism and a wardrobe of someone ten years her senior. She probably never made decisions based on gut feeling or traveled unless she’s made sensible hotel reservations months in advance. She was probably one of those people who didn’t touch the escalator, never let dishes pile up in her sink and alphabetized books on her bookshelf – with little tolerance for anyone who did otherwise.
In fact, getting in the elevator, I was relieved that Tatyana was moving out, along with her Pottery Barn accoutrements. I didn’t need her strategic stuff.
The elevator stopped on the fourth floor. A petite young woman walked in. She wore yoga pants. Black eyeliner rimmed her large hazel eyes. Her dark hair contrasted her paleness and the tiny rose gold-colored earrings. She smiled at me and said with perfectly rounded Russian vowels: “Goh-ving daaah-oon?”
“Um, yeah,” I grunted and stared at my boots, as if caught in some shameful activity.
“Good!” She nodded and walked in, smiling again. A faint fragrance of sweet citrus filled the elevator. I recognized it instantly because, like pretty much everything she owned, I, too, owned this fragrance at one point or another.
When the elevator finally crawled down, Tatyana – as that’s who it seemed to – sprinted toward the entrance, windows foggy against the outside cold. She opened the door and let in a man waiting in the snow. They embraced, then she took his hand and led him into the bright lobby and back into the elevator, as I snuck out past them into the dark.
I don’t remember where I went that night. But I remember Tatyana’s face and clothes, the directness of her eye contact and enunciation, as if looking in the mirror and discovering my own reflection.
On the way back, I headed right for the bench. I took the things still sitting on it: the Russian radio-approved CDs, the teacups, the strategic books and pillows, even a blue cotton sweater. Back in my apartment, the objects slipped effortlessly into their given spaces, as if they’d been in my home all along.
And perhaps they have been. Perhaps even the smallest of things can radiate kinship. These recognizable objects follow their wayward owners everywhere they go. Like little pieces of home, they shimmer for those who’ve gotten lost along the way, but who, too, had once been there.