By Inna Portnova
Pshkin. GÛr'kiy. TurgÈnev. DostoyÈvsky.
They all stared at her--all momentous, plaster faces of great
Russian writers--looking down from their man-made pedestals high above
the doorway. Solemn faces. Faces covered in yellow-white bird
droppings. Faces of judges and of parents...
She pulled the heavy leather-coated door towards herself. Her
head was pounding.
Was she nervous? She had no reason to be. She knew it would go perfect.
Inside, she was struck by the familiar smell of sweat and dirt,
and inhaled it with the happiness of a child, thrilled at coming home
after a long trip.
She took a few steps forward.
Yes, it was all the same, all as it had been just four years ago,
when she had left. All the same rusty metal racks for coats and
shoe-bags. All the same colors and placards with "Take care of your
school, as if it were your own home." It was all so familiar and yet
so foreign. She didn't belong here any more. But if not here, where did
The school was the first place she went to visit, having dropped
her bags off at the hotel. The sight of Moscow after four years in a
large, two-story villa overlooking the San Francisco bay, roused her senses.
The city looked beautiful to her. Maybe it was muddy and dirty,
and the asphalt was cracked in many places, and maybe she should have
been disappointed just like everyone told her she would be, but her heart
sang within her breast and she wanted to run around in the puddles
barefoot, like she used to do when she was a child.
The school was the first place she'd gone to because that was
where everyone was. She hoped she'd still recognize her classmates, her
classmates who were but children when she had left.
In her rented, two door Mercedes, so popular in Russia for some
reason, she had driven up to the front of the school. As she turned off
the ignition, she paused and looked about in the awe of sweet reminiscence.
Everything, everything smelled and tasted of spring. On her
tongue she could feel the fresh taste of sour early-spring apples, the
tingly taste, that made her want to bite in, greedily, licking her full
She hadn't seen snow since she had left, she realized. She had
never imagined she might miss the snow. But there wasn't very much to
see anymore. Most of the streets were covered in large puddles, puddles
that stretched for many feet in every direction and looked like small
brown lakes, with last fall's dry leaves and pieces of wood, floating in
them like ships. The birds sang all around, and the buds on the trees
were slowly turning into tiny green leaves, baby leaves, beautiful and
innocent, like all nature with the coming of spring. There were still
small patches of snow. Here and there, small white and gray
islands--remnants of the winter's late luxury.
She got out of the car, and firmly walked up the school steps,
where she stopped again, her heart beating rapidly.
Inside there was a musty thickness to the air. She felt as
though she were stepping into a mortuary. A mortuary of her memories,
perhaps. Perhaps a mortuary of the time long gone. Running her fingers
over the rough cream walls, she walked slowly down the corridor, towards
the stairs. She savored every moment, every second... The texture, the
sounds, the smell...
A first-grader ran by her. Oh how small he looked. She knew he
was a first grader because he didn't have a little red star, attached to
the left breast of his dark blue uniform. And she remembered herself,
just such a first-grader, running down this same hall years and years
ago, with Nastya and maybe Katya and maybe Anya the Kitty. It was too
bad Anya didn't go here anymore. Yes, Nastya had written her earlier
that she had been kicked out of school for poor grades.
They used to stand around in the halls. Anya was always wearing
a sky blue sweater over her uniform. She must have been very cold--that
was why. She was slight in figure and had the most adorable sweet face.
She also had long blond hair that she used to wear in two braids parted
in the middle, and they all liked to take out the braids and play barber
with her petite beautiful head. She was too sweet to ever say anything.
Nastya, who at the time used to be in love with cats, always called her
Kitty and begged her to say "Meow." Nastya told a lot of people
"Meow" then, but no one ever cared to, or maybe no one could ever
as well as Anya, for making her purr was Nastya's favorite pastime during
those five-minute breaks between classes in first grade, when they all
used to stand around in the halls--she, Nastya, Katya, and Anya the Kitty.
And now. What would it be like now, she wondered, as though she
didn't yet know. She ran up the steep stairs, to the second floor, where
Nastya's class was.
She remembered Nastya as she last saw her--a thin, sleepy girl,
wrapped up in a big shawl to stay warm. They were outside, by the car,
and they were saying good-bye. They didn't know whether they were ever
to see one another again, and that was the most awful part of it all.
They didn't know... Nastya had insisted on coming out there that morning
at two. It didn't seem like such a big deal then, but through the years
it had become a symbol of their friendship, a symbol of the end of their
childhood together--that Nastya should come out in the middle of the
night, just to give her a farewell card, just to hug her one last time.
A tear came down her cheek.
This was the classroom. Through still outside, she knew that
they were all listening to the audio chapter on traveling. It was the
English class--her favorite class of them all.
She walked in boldly, or so she thought, her tight jeans and a
body-suit making her stand-out sharply against the blue and brown boys
and girls in uniforms. She was beautiful in their eyes. Beautiful,
independent, rich. She was everything they ever aspired to be and she
saw that in the momentary glance that she caught of the surprised class.
There was dead silence. The teacher had turned off the tape.
Suddenly she thought of something. Yes, it had already been prearranged.
She was at the door to the classroom again. Everyone already
knew she was coming. They all knew she was coming... as an American
exchange student, and no one knew who she really was. It would be all
the better that way.
She re-entered the classroom. Her loose jeans starting at the
hips and a tight V-neck sweater, along with her bold walk and up-held
head made the class fill up with whispers and approving nods.
As she stood at the front of the classroom, she felt happy, truly
happy as she hadn't been in years. Everyone was smiling at her, with sly
envious smiles, but they liked her and that was important. They liked
her and they thought she was great. They thought she was great and they
didn't even know her yet.
Natalya Vladimirovna's very eyes smiled as she looked at her and
introduced her to the class: "We are going to have an exchange student,
visiting us for a while. Her name is Judy Rosen and she is from the
United States. Remember, I've told you about her? She is in her last
year at school there, just like you. Will someone volunteer to translate
for her? She speaks no Russian."
Oh what a great sensation it was knowing that no one, not even
her own teacher, should recognize her, while she knew and remembered them
Judy's lips curled into a knowing smile, another wonderfully
entertaining thought having struck her. And so it should be, and so it was.
"Yes, thank you," said Natalya Vladimirovna unexpectedly,
"Nastya will volunteer. Thank you Nastya."
Taken aback Nastya looked wide-eyed at her. "But... why me? Do
I have to? I didn't do anything..."
"Yes, Nastya," the teacher said firmly, "you have to. But
an honor, of course. Please, do tell our guest so yourself."
Only now did Judy remember that the conversation was taking place
in Russian and that she should act as though she didn't understand a
word. That was alright though--no one had so far noticed. She gave her
friend a wide Californian smile, and turned to the teacher, saying in her
perfect American English, "Everything's alright?"
"Exactly, it's all took care of," said Natalya Vladimirovna,
struggling through words. Judy wondered that at one time she used to
think this woman was an English language expert. In a way, she owed her
easy adjustment in America to this woman's efforts. In particular she
remembered one lesson well.
"In ten minutes," had said Natalya Vladimirovna some seven years
back "you will have to come up front and give a season report. Describe
the vegetation, describe the weather, whatever you like. You use one
Russian word and you get an automatic fail."
There had been hustling about and nervous whispering and loud
complaints, but everyone had begun frantically compiling their reports.
How do you say this, how do you say that, Natalya Vladimirovna, rang from
all sides. At first she would say. "Trava is grass. No, not growls,
but grass. Listya is leaves. Shhh. I can't hear what Vladimir is
asking. Oh, listiki? There is not such thing in English. Just use
leaves..." But the questions kept coming and so she lost patience.
you don't know a word," she said "just use another word that you
or use a lot of words to describe the word that you don't know, but I
won't tell you how to say any more words."
Judy was one of the people who didn't get her question answered
then and she was angry. She got a 5 all the same of course, but she was
angry. When she came to America, yes, only then, did she realize how
much good it had done her. Her first day in an American school has
proved it so. "Where is that thing that will make my pencil be ...
pointed?" No one was there to tell her pencil-sharpener or sharper,
the teacher understood her all the same and that was enough.
Judy looked gratefully now at Natalya Vladimirovna and took a
seat next to Nastya, who was still wide-eyed from the shock. "It's
okay," Judy felt the need to soothe her. "I speak nemnogko Russian."
Nastya smiled back at her, her green cat-like eyes squinting
happily. "That's not too bad," she said. "Do you learn Russian
Yes, exactly. That would be exactly what Nastya would say.
"No," Judy said with a coquettish half smile. "I just have
friend who goes to my school, who is Russian, and she taught me."
"Who? I mean, what's her name?"
"It's Natasha. She came to America just about four or five years ago."
"Natasha?! To what school do you go?"
"Yes, it is the same Natasha that you are thinking about. She
used to go to your school before she moved. That's partly why I decided
to visit this school."
She enjoyed the expression on Nastya's face. It was full of
surprise, full of excitement, full of inexplicable happiness. She would
have to tell her sometime, sometime soon, but not just yet. It was too
exciting, pretending to be someone else, pretending to be someone else
and getting away with it so easily.
A sharp and demanding sound pierced the air. The bell maybe?
Maybe it was just time to go on to the next class. But no, it wasn't the
bell. It was the phone. Almost immediately the light went on in the
kitchen, and I could hear my mother's voice, loud and sharp in the
silence of the late hour, "Allo?"
The sofa-bed squeaked as I turned over onto another side, to
avoid the light in my eyes. Same old uncomfortable sofa-bed that my
relatives got for free from the Jewish Community Center before we arrived
so we would have some furniture in our small one-bedroom apartment in San
Francisco. Same old bare living-room walls that imprisoned me like a
jail cell. Same old burgundy divan with coffee and only God knows what other
stains on it,
smelling of places long dead and forgotten, making me think of dampness,
cold, and misery, facing my own bed, and dividing the living room into
two parts--the "bedroom" and the "study room."
My mother looked in my direction, and I closed my eyes, slowing
down my breathing, just enough, to confuse her in the dimness of the room.
"Natasha? No, Natasha is asleep. Call tomorrow."
I turned over again. If I concentrate I can go back, I thought.
If I concentrate I can go back to that wonderful spacious room with
yellow wall paper on the walls, my very own room, a room in a
twelve-story building, only a few blocks away from that gray cement
box--the school, where I can be with my friends. Maybe I could go back
to that classroom, where I traveled incognito in my wonderful sweet
fantasy, and where beckoning glow. Between the two buildings facing our
house I saw a triangle of a cloudless blue sky. Below it lay the tiny
houses, snuggled up close to one another for warmth and comfort in that
cold, windy city. And down on the ground I saw two little figures--ah
but they did seem so little from that second story window--two little
girls, walking hand in hand. Walking and laughing, and squinting at the
sun. Their dark straight hair hung from their shoulders, and they pulled
it playfully, talking about something in Chinese. Maybe they were
telling each other stories about their friends, or maybe--remembering the
good times they'd had when they were even smaller.
And I smiled at the two little girls--at their happiness and
friendship. And then they passed, so I could no longer see them. But I
just stood there, by the window, smiling at the two little shadows, going
off into the glowing sunrise, at the two little shadows who were Nastya
and I, holding hands and laughing, and the beautiful morning sun.
"Little Shadows" belongs purely to Inna Portnova © 1996
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