An Impressionist Scene
A dozen people sit around a picnic table. Most are squeezed onto the benches. A few sit on wooden chairs at either end. A blue vinyl tarp stretches overhead, its corners lashed to trees and posts.
“Sit here,” says a thin young man when Margaret and I arrive. Margaret returns to her spot on a bench while the young man waves me over, insists I take his chair, then disappears around the corner of the house, where red, pink, and yellow roses look adrift and nearly drowning in a flood of tall grass.
We’re in the back yard of a German house in a Turkish village in Kyrgyzstan. This cultural sedimentation bespeaks the waves of “dangerous citizens” relocated to the Soviet Union’s Central Asian hinterland during wartimes. But more contemporary forces have brought everyone to this gathering where I hear conversation in Russian, English, and German.
As I look around, I recognize the woman who lives in this house and her adult daughter. The mother has uranium-yellow hair, black at the roots, and heavy blue eyeshadow. The daughter has bright orange hair and wears a hot-pink, terry-cloth house dress with a brass zipper up the front. They are both tall, powerful-looking women with thick lips, heavy eye lids, and full cheeks.
“Hello, Leeza,” the mother says in Russian, a gold tooth glinting in her mouth. “Do you remember us?”
“Yes, yes,” I say, though I only remember her and her daughter, and I’m not sure who all “us” includes.
“How are your parents?” she asks.
“Good, thank you.”
“And life in America?”
“Good. Everything’s good.”
“That’s good. And where is your Russian boyfriend?”
“He’s with friends in Bishkek. He’s my husband now.”
Everyone laughs. They’ve been eating and drinking. Bones and grease are all that’s left of the main dish. Large aluminum spoons lie abandoned on the plastic table cloth or lean propped against the edges of bowls and plates that sit askew on rumpled folds. At the other end of the table, black specks dot the spaces between dishes. Are they raisins or flies? Beyond the table I see a vegetable garden and an outhouse but can’t make out much else—the blue tarp is turning the light beyond its shade into a brash yellow opacity.
Someone empties a tea cup, tossing its contents onto the grass, and fills it from a tea pot for me. “Drink, Leeza,” she says. I take the small dish to my lips, tilt a swish of bitter, tepid chai into my mouth, then nudge the cup between empty dishes on the table in front of me. To do less would be rude.
“Blake, what is his name?” To my left, a man with a flushed face and greasy brown hair points to a man at the opposite end of the bench.
“Roland,” says Blake, a twenty-something American to my right.
“Does Roland want some beer?” The flushed man starts pouring from a two-liter bottle.
Next to Roland, a woman mops her neck with a red bandana. From across the table, she asks me in German-inflected English if I’m a volunteer like her nephew, Blake.
“I used to be,” I say. “I trained in this village one year before Blake. I lived with the same host family as Margaret, around the corner. Then I moved to my permanent site in Osh.”
“Oh, we were just in Osh. A few days ago. Then we went up to Bishkek. Today we came down here to meet Blake’s host family.” She wipes the bandana along the neckline of her white polo shirt. “In a couple of days we’re going to see Lake Issyk-Kul.”
I think of the giant mountain lake, blue and cool.
“Eat, Leeza!” Blake’s host mother glowers at me from across the table, and a woman to my right pushes a pastry in a plastic wrapper toward me.
“How long will you be at Lake Issyk-Kul?” I ask Blake’s aunt.
“A few days. Then we’ll go to Uzbekistan and then back to Germany.”
I was originally supposed to go to Uzbekistan. But at the last minute, the Peace Corps called and asked if I would go to Kyrgyzstan instead. Three months later, I was here in this village, living with a Turkish host family and studying Russian. I’d been in this home, where a fellow volunteer had lived, but that was five years ago. All I remember is this family used to have geese in their yard and two gentle dogs named Bobik and Tuzik. None of these animals are here now, although there is a new Tuzik. But he’s wild and chained to the front gate.
“Blake, we’re wondering who everyone is,” his aunt says.
Blake turns to the person next to him, a balding mustachioed man in gray, and says in Russian, “We’re wondering: who are you? Everyone here—how do they know each other?”
“I,” the man begins, pinching his thumb and fingers together and jabbing them into his chest, “am the husband of that man’s first wife.” He nods toward the flushed man to my left, who is fairly drunk, and who I later learn is named Ildar. Ildar is married to the blond host mother, Dariya. But the man in gray does not explain this. Everyone but me knows this much.
“And this is my daughter,” the gray man continues, indicating a young woman to his right with brown hair and a tight dress lifting her breasts in a display of cleavage. Next to her a large woman with long blond hair holds a towheaded baby in a cotton diaper. Behind them, a tall blond man leans against a post that holds up the blue tarp. He wears an army-green wife-beater and fatigues with a leather belt. But no one explains who they are.
“Yes, that’s true,” Ildar says. “I’ve had two wives, and I’m a Muslim, so I want a third.” Ildar pauses and then launches the punch line: “Margaret!”
I’m not sure if this is supposed to be funny because of Ildar’s interpretation of Muslim law, because Margaret is American, or because she is middle-aged. And I’m not sure if anyone but Ildar is amused. The hot faces around the table are hard to read.
“Look, Dariya is so jealous!” Ildar says. “Just look at her. She’s jealous!”
But he is saying this in Russian: “Ona revnivaya!” And I can’t quite remember what revnivaya means, so I ask, “Kto revnivaya?” (Who’s jealous?), trying to understand, to remember the meaning of the word I just said.
Then I remember: jealous. My face blushes as I look up at Dariya. She sits unmoved at the other end of the table.
On our way over, Margaret had told me that when she’d left earlier to meet me around the corner, Ildar had walked her out. “To hold back the dogs,” he’d explained to everyone, and Dariya retorted, “If you’re going with Margaret, then I’m going with Blake!” Margaret and I understood it was a joke—a Russian pun—but there’s a saying in Russian that in every joke is a drop of truth.
The young man who gave me his chair returns to the table, pulling a stool up next to me. He presents me with a small bouquet of yellow and purple wildflowers, presumably gathered from the yard.
“Oh, thank you,” I say.
“From my soul,” he responds with gravity.
“Thank you,” I say again, taking the fragile bouquet.
He points to a rose and gestures that he would give me one. “From my soul,” he says again.
“Oh, thank you,” I say again. “Not necessary. Too difficult,” I add, thinking of the thorns.
“Leeza, do you live near Canada?” the young man asks.
“Well, not very near or very far,” I try to explain with my limited Russian.
“I want to see Niagara Falls.”
“Ah, yes. That’s far from where I live. That’s in New York.”
“Are there grizzly bears there?”
“No. No, it’s a city there.”
Suddenly an excited Ildar joins the conversation: “You know grizzly? Grizzly?”
“Yes,” I say.
“You know why they are so big? There are a lot of fish in Canada, and the grizzlies eat a lot of fish. There are a lot of fish in Siberia, and the grizzlies there are big too. They’re the same.”
“Grizzly bears?” Blake asks, joining in.
“Yes!” says Ildar. “The grizzly bears in Siberia and Canada are the same. It’s the fish.” Satisfied, Ildar takes a drink. “You know,” he resumes, “it was Yekatarina who gave Alaska to the U.S. Then in 1999, Yeltsin—the best Russian president we’ve ever had—was drunk, and he asked for it back! But George Bush said,” —Ildar raises his fist and slides his thumb under his index finger—“Vo!”
“Really?” says Blake.
“Soon Alaska won’t be wild anymore,” Ildar continues. “Barack Obama wants to go in there and build.”
“Don’t listen to him!” the young man explodes. “Really, Leeza, don’t listen to him. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Don’t let him bother you.” The young man stands and rushes off, his stool barely keeping its legs.
“That’s Ildar’s son from his first marriage,” the man in gray whispers to me.
I resist the urge to turn and watch where the young man goes. Instead I look across the table where the hair on the back of Roland’s neck is dark with sweat. Just within the shade of the tarp, he and his wife, who don’t know any Russian, look bored out of their minds, or bored into their minds. Where else is there to go when you’re stuck at this picnic table and don’t understand anything? I wonder what they think of all this.
Flies and bees rest on the edges of tea cups askew on the crowded table. The last two pieces of melon are turning pasty on top while medallions of fried eggplant congeal in a pool of oil on a platter. A breeze carries the scents of sweat and beer as the blond woman shifts the baby in her lap. I shift my bouquet from one hand to the other, and a yellow flower falls to the ground. I don’t know what to do with this messy arrangement, but I’d feel bad just dropping it.
“Don’t you think this scene is impressionistic?” Roland says to me from across the table.
“That’s interesting. Yes,” I say, thinking how nothing here is in focus.
“The garden, the table. It’s all so lovely. Like a Renoir.”