Gillem and I were walking back to his house near the Chalets further up the sloping fields to make a campfire and play music for a little when we heard a party. We had made plans to take his car in the morning to a favourite swimming spot called le Claps. We whistled drunk melodies and looked at the moon weaving in and out of clouds. On the path, a head popped out of the yurt and whispered to us “Hey, come in,” it was around two-thirty, the night was young.
Inside the yurt, twelve people sat cross-legged on the floor. A man with a beret tapped a constant rhythm on a little animal skin drum and a woman with bright blue eyes strummed on a guitar.
“What language are they singing in?” I asked Gillem.
“I think Ukrainian,” he said. I got excited.
A cube of wine dripped slowly off a tiny end table. A large, bearded man named Bard who worked at the ski resort across the valley in Larjarjette and visited the Village from time to time was there with Hilga who was staying for the summer.
“Bonsoir!” he said.
“What a night huh?” I said. He made me uncomfortable, and I wanted to acknowledge him but keep maneuvering so that I could sit with anyone else.
“Henri did the most hilarious thing this winter, I still can’t get over it,” he said, sticking me to an unavoidable surface like an ant in honey, only escape was to eat my way out.
“Oh, that again. It wasn’t a big deal. Really quite stupid,” I said.
“No, no, no. It was geniale!” he said and laughed with chips in his mouth.
“Well what was it? Don’t be embarrassed,” Hilga said.
“I’d rather you didn’t tell her—”
“You know those telesieges?” Bard said.
“Please don’t,” I said.
“It’s like a ski lift but just a pole with a circle for your bum, and you’re supposed to kind of stand on your skis as it shoots up like a spring and takes you up the mountain. Henri thought you were supposed to sit down on them. He put all his weight on it at the very moment the mechanism triggered, and he catapulted into the air like a flying cannoli!” he said, and half the yurt heard his loud voice say crêpe and they erupted laughing.
The guitar girl stopped strumming to ask why everyone was laughing and then she and the drummer laughed too, second wave delay. So if I were to count how many waves of laughter happened as a cause of me being slingshotted off a telesiege, it would be five (that I’m aware of). The first one was by far the worst. About a hundred people witnessed my cannoli-like eagle pigeon flamingo flap. We went for burgers after that fall and I ate the best bleu cheeseburger of my life in the little ski resort restaurant. It wasn’t your typical ski resort restaurant; it was a quaint family owned place.
Everyone looked to me, ‘the American’ for my opinion on the burger, because I should know. It was better than any burger I’d ever had, and all the French people were both proud of the gourmet French burger, and a bit disappointed that the mythic States don’t really have that great of burgers in comparison. The sweet handmade brioche bun, the thick raw milk hard local fromage, the beef from the farm down the road, garden veggies, oh! I was soaking wet. I didn’t wear any snow gear. Sloggy pants, slushed socks, helmet hair. (not counting the telesiege debacle) I crashed twenty-two times that day on those too-big-for-me skis. Hey it was my first skiventure after all.
“Alright, alright. You know not everyone has the luxury of being born on skis like you.”
“He flew and flew! Comme un petit oiseau,” he said, chips escaping his mouth in rhythm to his chuckle.
“Aw, poor guy, leave him be,” Hilga said laughing.
“Oh, I’d be embarrassed too if I fell off the telesiege,” Bard said.
“Yeah, merci for telling the whole world,” I said.
“Everyone has their strong suits, I heard you play guitar. Why don’t you play us a tune? That’ll teach him.”
“Yeah, play us a tune,” Bard said.
“Oh, I don’t know. I’m not really feeling the mood,” I said. My ratio of nights played and nights with excuses was getting to be like one of those scientific number decimals of zeros to the nth power trailing off into the underpowered calculator with digits fading.
“Please Henri! Pleeeeaasssseee!” the yurt roared.
I finally gave in and walked over a few people lounging to fetch the guitar. I sat next to the Ukrainians and strummed a G chord, then a D chord. They smiled and waited for more. I began a song from the Swampettes catalogue, “Halfway to Yesteryear” and silence in the yurt took me to the part where I’m supposed to sing. I couldn't remember the words. I don’t know what came over me, but dramatic and mean lyrics about Bard blurted out of my mouth, like a spitty puppet Broadway musical.
It was horrible and I wanted to leave.
“Alright, ha-ha, give it over here.” he said.
Silence in the court. My eyes drunkenly zoned at him like a defiance to the emperor.
“Let me see that,” he said.
I handed the guitar to be passed to him. He took it and began strumming obnoxious open strings. He didn’t know how to play a note. He looked around the room for approval, people hushed amongst themselves can he play?
“Henry thinks he’s so cooooooooouueeeeeeeeelll, yaaaa baaa diiiii yaaa baaaa dooouuuuuu,” he sang out of terrible key and register like a tone-deaf yodeling dog.
“Should you apologize?” the Ukrainian woman asked.
“I don’t know. I thought we were just having a friendly roast. He started it, but I think he’s actually upset,” I said.
“Please make him stop.”
He kept on singing. His attempt to humiliate me via song method was so annoying we managed to cancel it out to background noise and pivoted to the opposite side of the yurt.
I looked at this woman who had oddly similar features to me. She noticed it first.
“Are you Ukran—you are Ukrainian. My brother!” she said and gave me a hug from the side.
“Well, I am really from the United States,” I said embarrassed.
“So you don’t speak Ukrainian?
I nodded a no.
“No problem! No problem! As long as you don’t like Bush or Putin, we’re ok,” she said.
“This may sound stupid but what do you think about love?” I said. “What’s your name by the way?”
“Yeva, nice to meet you,” she said. “Well, let me see. How about this? I tell you a story about my experience, to show you how I feel, and you tell me a story how you feel, deal?” she said as she pulled out her diary.
Ok, I thought she got deep fast and she came prepared. The yurt’s conversations scattered and drifted away, and we were now in an intimate speech bubble. Bard was still grumbling in song form; the very important mice were still making their rounds. "I'll do the watermelon at the wedding story. Ready?"
[Yeva tells a story from her journal]
I was holding a scratched watermelon when rain seemed to sweat out of a summer cloud. A cart-hauling-horse snorted, and I took cover under a torn Soviet Union army tarp. I watched fields of sunflowers drip as I listened to people speak in Russian. We passed several stands that looked exactly the same, but this one was supposed to have the best watermelons. I was in Moldova for my sister’s wedding, though I could hardly believe that this woman speaking fluent Gagauz and negotiating prices to women in long flower dresses was actually my sister.
“We got a great deal here Yeva,” she said to me. She was holding two sizable watermelons in her arms like babies. “Oh wait, where did you find that one? Look at all those scratches, it’s going to be so juicy sweet,” she said and placed her own down on a fold out table. She turned the melon in my arm and showed me the light brown and yellow patch on the patterned green skin.
“I’ve always just knocked on them with my knuckles, I thought the scratches were bad,” I said.
“Yeah, that doesn’t work. It’s so funny how Ukrainians want all their fruit to look plastic,” she said and shook her head and put the melons into sky blue plastic bags. I could tell she was proud of her recently gained knowledge acquired by living in Gagauzia. I put my ear up to one and knocked anyway.
If I was a watermelon, would I have scratches on me? And then I thought of all those sweet watermelons that rot at SuperMarket because they look ugly.
Much of the region had been abandoned since the 1990s after the Soviet Union’s collapse. Warehouses were left to crumble as people wanted to forget they had ever existed but didn’t have the energy to remove them. On the way back to my sister’s fiancé’s house we took pictures in the skeleton of a graffitied school that still had math equations on the chalkboard. I was released into a dream that wasn’t mine. An old man sat on a rusty cart. He smoked a pipe and held the reins to his horse while he passed us in the field. He looked tired.
“Privyet Stanislav!” my sister said, waving. He rode by. He didn’t respond.
His cart shook and bounced on the hole-filled path between the two fields. Fruit fell out of the back of his cart, but he didn’t react. His horse’s dry stare locked on the dirt ahead as her tail snapped at gnats. The old man’s saggy skin rattled underneath his eyes, barely managing to keep everything inside his head contained. Their shadows seemed to move more purposefully than their bodies did.
Everyone in the village knew Stanislav and his family. He lived in the same mid-sized thatched roof house that he grew up in. His father, a muscular tempered man with an immense appreciation for Cognac was the only doctor in his village and earned a decent wage. He was liked by most people except when somebody died, then he became the most hated man in the country until the stages of grief were fully passed. Drunken men regularly came into the house threatening to kill him. A pang of guilt came to the family’s consciousness even though there was nothing Stanislav’s father could have done to save those people. Stanislav now lived alone, everyone in his family either died or moved to Russia or America. He considered those three things the biggest reasons why Gagauzia was empty.
My sister nudged me with her elbow and said, “Will you come with us tonight, we have to invite him to the wedding.”
“Why do you have to invite him? He didn’t even say hi to you,” I asked.
“We have to invite all the neighbours, and he’s been a family friend for decades,” she said.
My sister’s fiancé pulled a hand-carved wine canteen made from beautiful wood out of a bag. “Pace yourself,” he said, “this is going to be a long night.”
My sister knocked on the front door of our first stop of the night. I stood behind her fiancé as if I was trying to hide that I didn’t wear a costume on Halloween but still wanted candy. An aging woman in a blue dress opened the door and loud cheers of joy and curiosity exuded from her mouth as she gave us all hugs. After rounds of questions about the wedding were through, some real concerns were brought to the surface.
“Lena’s daughter has left for Bordeaux to pick grapes,” she said, finishing her tiny crystal glass of invitation wine. It was tradition to accept a shot whether they were going to attend or not. “It’s so sad, everyone in the neighbourhood is leaving, it’s going to be all of us old people dying alone together,” she said, and I could tell my sister wanted to leave. She stopped translating (from the Gagauz) and I was lost. The woman patted my sister’s belly, and I could tell she said something like, “But that’s so great that you are getting married and settling down here, I can’t wait to see the babies,” and my sister looked at her fiancé and rolled her eyes subtly.
“It’s been so nice to see you,” my sister said, getting up out of the pale green sofa with embroidered scenes of rustic life. We kissed on the cheek goodbye and stepped outside as if nothing had happened.
Their houses were beautiful and odd. Aqua blue and lime green colors seemed tame in the moonlight. Carved wooden frames spiraled around the adorned doors and paired with the red and orange bordered windows. Each family had outdoor cats that seemed to live completely independent lives but were allowed to live in the gardens with the understanding that they killed rodents. They pawed at the door when they wanted to come inside. Maestro, a French cat, chased grasshoppers in the alleyway until after midnight when the other cats came out to meet under the resting head-down sunflowers of a rose-pink house. Nearby a new litter suckled and squeaked in the corner of the garden. Maestro had scoliosis and a limp and got into several fights a week with the other cats. Her owner, a young woman from Gagauzia who was living in Paris as an au pair, found her a block from the Eiffel tower in the home of an upper-middle-class lady named Gertrude. At Rue de Grenelle, Gertrude’s family home was being renovated. Her cat Tim Tim found a window left open by a construction worker who had to use the restroom. By the time Tim Tim made course to the Romanian Embassy, where Gertrude worked, she already had sex twice. I was very drunk when she told me this part, but I think about this cat every time I walk by this house.
Stanislav’s house was our last stop, and my sister debriefed me before walking through the front gate, “make sure to smile and shake his hand. And don’t get up too quickly, or serve yourself a drink, let him do that. Make sure to take off your shoes, he doesn’t like dirt being tracked in, and don’t bring up Ukraine, he doesn’t want to hear about that.” I nodded my head.
Stanislav stiff shook my hand. He said something in Gagauz, and I said hello. I must have sounded like an idiot because he moaned and turned to his kitchen. He had a large wooden table with chickens carved along its edges. I sat and watched him pull pickled fish from a cabinet. His old age had no visible effect on his eating or drinking habits. My sister served him the invitation shot, and he already had four glasses of Cognac prepared for all of us. He and my sister’s fiancé started a conversation about the bandleader in the town center.
“You know that Dimitrie, who repairs all those trumpets and tubas at the center? He passed.”
“He did? I just saw him last week to work on my euphonium, he seemed to be in good health,” my sister’s fiancé said, shocked.
“Of course, those musicians, they’ll look good until that last note, then realize they’ve neglected all their problems ‘til it’s too late, and their faces turn blue like no more air can go through those brass tubes, and they clog up like cement,” my sister’s Gagauz was put to the test as she drunkenly translated Stanislav.
“My father took care of the musicians, but they left us, all the good ones did anyway.”
“He must have been a good man,” my sister said.
“Even the good ones leave us with their burdens and debt, for which I’ve paid the rest of my life, I just couldn’t keep those memories in us alive with more children to bear them, there comes a point where enough is enough,” Stanislav said, and looked at his decorated mantle with his father’s ashes inside an ornate urn.
I fell asleep that night feeling rootless.
I woke up late and outside I could hear the Gagauzian wedding games. My to-be-brother-in-law had to outwit his friends to claim his bride at the front door. They were moving like rabid insects, scuffling their feet. My sister was being dressed into her wedding gown by bridesmaids and elders and had an audience of all the invited women. Ninety-year-old women watched seventy-year-old women douse her in make-up. Hair spray filled the room in a gaseous opaque plume. Her dress was fitted tightly by two of the aunts. Accordions and saxophones blared outside, and I could see the men getting closer. The victor yelled for my sister at the door. She emerged and was presented by our father, who declared this man a worthy suitor. Everyone cheered and danced in a circle holding hands, and they lifted up the symbolic bread, eating a piece and passing it to everyone. The accordion player took a break over by the snack table. I watched him eat a piece of watermelon.
“Yeva, I—I need to lie down.”
“What? What’s wrong? Did you not like that story?”
“No, no. I’d just never thought of watermelons like that.”
“Yeah. How the insects scratch the rinds?”
“I better go, I’m not feeling so great.”
“No way! You said you’d tell a story too, and I gave you a good one.”
“You know what, I feel like I don’t have a story.”
“You are so full of shit! Here, try to relax a little. Lean back, get comfortable. Take a few deep breaths.”
I breathe in and out deeply.
“Okay good. Now, close your eyes, and lean your head back a bit. Yeah, like that.”
She says, tell me what you see. I tell her I see nothing. Just specks of light behind my eyelids. Keep going she says. I keep going. Images fade into the dark space all orange and purple. Shapes deform and turn out of my control. I command them to stop but they shift before I can do anything. Now they are tadpole heads in wine glasses floating and dividing away and alligators waving goodbye on riverboats with cigars in their ears being fanned by platypuses. I wash a glass and throw it off the pier. What now? I ask her, she tells me to keep going. I tell her I don’t have a story to tell her. Breathe again she says. I’ve tried that I say. Try again she says. Do you see words ever? No, I don’t, I never see words. They are so elusive: to actually see a word form in my head would be crazy I think. Then where does the story come from if not thinking of words? Are they images first and then I try to describe them? She says yes, keep going. And I say well that isn’t fair, what if the images in my head are blurry or no good. What happens then? If the images in my head amount to nothing. If the memories won’t let me make them a material. They won’t let me manipulate or search them. And the good ones easily disappear, and the bad ones won’t let me destroy them. Do they come from the body? If I search hard enough in my right arm with the compound fracture, bone pierced through skin one day, fell off a skateboard. The scar tissue building since that day just fifteen, the scar tissue building to tell its story? In some stiff deformed way, how it has stuck with me. I don’t know what to say I say. She says don’t worry. Keep going. I feel the dark speckles with orange and now laser green highlights spinning. The back of an eagle appears, and it flaps its wings, like I’m mounted, soaring somewhere above forests and canyons. But not much of a story I say. She says it’s alright, breathe again, get it back. I breathe and see a moon appear. I think it’s nighttime, where am I again? That’s always a question I ask myself to double check with my body. I keep soaring the eagle is gone, just me now. My memory of a memory of a memory of a visualization of a classical organ fugue in G minor. Perfectly round boulders rolling from an aqueduct, not Roman. Long unbelievable stilts hold up these shoots that boulders roll inter-weaving and looping like rollercoasters. Below is the forest where villages of fairies are dancing around a fire. The four voices and bass line manifest into something quite harmonious never getting too far away from the root. But that is not a story Yeva. What is wrong with me? Breathe. Try coming down now. Set your feet on the ground. Okay, I’ll try. See anything?
I am walking. Lakeside boardwalk, still night no eagle though. Flying boulders are now too high to see. Elves are gone. Or what were they? Fairies? This is really nothing special a typical upper class, community lake. There’s a dim path peppered with dying solar lights, like the ones as a kid I’d kick over outside my house. Some lights on poles too. What do you call those. Street lamps? There’s a house, I don’t want to go in but I’m going in, straight into a gothic stone house. I entered against my will. Keep going she says. A dark hallway now, more and more like some British mansion. Wow, some nice chandeliers and cherrywood panels, Pakistani rugs in glorious salons. I’m going further, okay a living room situation, I’m turning around. Ahhhh! A cat jumped on me! It’s ripping off my shirt! It doesn’t hurt. The cat screeches and hisses. I catch it by its tail and up! Rip it off of me. The cat ran away. Oh good she says. Ah it’s getting fuzzy. An old lady comes in and saw an old lady come in. In and she was like well what does all the ruckus is? Why did you why are you in our home? What do I say? She scares me Yeva. What do I say? Breathe. Tell her what happened. Well, you see the boardwalk went straight through this hole to your house. I am sorry for the disturbance madame. Good. I’ve never heard of that hole before. Anywho, you are you are roughed up take me there through it won’t you? How did it go? Shit, what do I say? Do I tell her about the eagle? And the fairies the fugue? No no no no need. The cat was very startled by you coming in, why don’t you have a shirt on sir? Well that’s exactly why: the cat. Oh do tell me? Well, the feline jumped up insane and what was I supposed to do? Oh she’s all apologies now. I’ll let me go get you a shirt that I like to just wait here just wait there. Okay? Will you wait there? What do I do? Just wait there? Breathe, keep going. I want out! Please, wake me up now, this isn’t fun anymore, who is this lady? I don’t know, who is she to you, you are the one telling the story. How should I know? She scares me. She has a right you just walked into her home. But her vicious cat. Fine I’ll wait for a new shirt. I’m waiting there for her. Who’s this now? That’s her daughter. Oh you know her? Who who are you you are in my home without a shirt on. It’s a long story and I’m telling it to someone else. Oh. Well I must say as a character in this story I hope you apologize to me for walking in here so abruptly and without warning. The path seemed public I say. Was that good Yeva? Yeah, go with that she (if she’s still even listening) says. Okay right, as I was saying I was walking on a public path, which by the way, is very dimly lit, you might want to take that up with the board. And your house madame, materialized brick by brick like some bizzare thing around me as I was walking, the beautiful curvy furniture, the rugs, everything! And then as soon as I realized, wait somebody actually lives here, your cat jumped on me! And then there are you. That doesn’t explain the shirtlessness. Oh yes, that does look rather bad. So sorry, but look! My back has scratch marks, I’m bleeding. I think your mum, your grandma is it? Went to fetch me a shirt. Oh! My gosh, like I’m so sorry let me let me go see if I can get you some compensation here! No, really that’s not necessary. I’m in deep enough as it is, waiting for the shirt and all. She’s gone down now too. What now? Do I wait for them both? Should I just leave? I really don’t need a shirt. To find eggs or was it watermelons? Watermelons was my story Henri. What? What story? Breathe. Wait. Lady is taking all day. Ah, voila! She’s back with a bag of what is it? Snickers? Like a family pack. She’s rubbing my shoulder now, abort! Let her. Here have a shirt madame says and here’s some stickers that we had leftover from Christmas. Cadeau! What gift is this for? Compensation for what? Your troubles for getting hurt in their home. Oh great, thank you! Can I please, can I please go back now I think it’s time for me to go. She she’s saying let me know actually, you know what? Let me show you where our other stash of Christmas presents are. No, no, no, no! I’m done waiting. I don’t need any more gifts. I shouldn’t have gone in here, the cat was no big deal, we’re good. You’re breathing hard. Slower. Breathe slower. What now? Uhh it’s fuzzy again. I think I lost it. I uh, a man, looks like a young husband. Tank Top on. He’s coming in. The woman she’s saying—not Henri’s fault! Don’t hurt him please. He wasn’t trying to steal anything. He believes her, for now. I think. They are waving me to go down to the cellar? Should I go? Just go Yeva says.
In the basement. There’s a rack, so many chocolates! Do you like chocolate Henri? Is it Henri or Henry? Do you like it the French way? Onri? Sounds like we laugh non mignon? On rit. I’m in a bath of 80% fine Belgian chocolate, naked? Am I naked? Mmm my skin tastes good Mr. Henry. She’s bringing me a Big tin tin. She popped the lid, it is more baked goods. She is pulling out croissants, pains au chocolates, operas, religieuses, eclairs, oh god. I’m coming. Actually know what let’s give you more. Have me. Oh I’m sorry Yeva, what do I do? The husband's back. Looks pissed. That’s Good stuff right there! Just give him the snickers. No, we can’t just give him the snickers. He deserves more! More! More! I’m so sorry for your troubles Henri, take that! She’s slapping me. Just one tiny French chocolate assortment, is that okay with you Paul? Just give him a snookers and get him out of here. What’d he do for us? It’s for the inconvenience Paul! If that is even your name anymore. He had a very hard time in our home today. Thanks for the chocolates! I’m putting on an oversized white T-shirt. Chocolate is everywhere. I love Tim Tim? Is this a graphic of the cat—the cat ripping my shirt?
A mouse brushes up against my ear repeating over and over, “It’s very important that, it’s very important that, it’s very important that, it’s very important that, it’s very important that, it’s very important that, it’s very important that…” It tickles, it tickles, stop it tickles. Nose and whiskers, Yeva get him off me! Okay, it went away and now sounds like gargling.