Our brown dog: Bigga than Ben

I had heard about the dark comedy Bigga than Ben taking the UK’s film festivals by a storm and playing at a few cinemas in Moscow. So, this morning, I got online to check it out. The Ukrainian was in the kitchen preparing his breakfast. I call him over to watch the trailer.

Yes, it’s about 2 common low-life Russian thieves in living in London illegally. The Ukrainian was not impressed — he prefers the world of more glamorous thieves as depicted in the likes of Eastern Promises.

But…he should have paid more attention to the thieves’ tactics. For when he returned to the kitchen to eat his breakfast, he found half of it missing.
“Anna! You thief! You asshole!!” He yelled at the brown dog.
“Michelle! Look at what the brown dog did!” He brought the evidence of the 1/2 missing breakfast out to the living room. I shrugged my shoulders. What could I do? He was the one who left a very prized plate of chicken, vegetables, pasta and apple pie out unguarded.
“Come here, Annochka,” I called the brown dog over using the Russian diminutive of her name. “Who’s my good Russian doggie?”
“You know,” I then responded to the Ukrainian with a wink and a sly grin, “When you live with Russians, you become like Russians.”


X-years ago, a meme

I read Sandier Pastures — a blog written by a Filipino woman living and working with her husband and young daughter in Dubai. Today, she blogged this meme and I am following suit.

15 years ago — I was 18 and in my first month of studying at the University of Chicago. Coming from such a small town in rural Iowa, I found the institution to be very intimidating. I was the coxswain on the women’s crew team (though I quit after gaining quite a lot of weight. 😦 ). My roommate was from Queens, New York. Her family had moved to New York from China when she was a child due to the fact that she was child #2, a clear violation of China’s one-child laws. In October 1993 (15 years ago), I was reading Adam Smith’s The Wealth Of Nations and Homer’s Illiad. I also studied Physics and Calculus. I did not own a computer, so I frequently could be found in Harper library’s computer lab until 3 a.m., trying to write 3-page papers. I really felt as if I had nothing to say about either texts. (It would not be long until I began to wonder how I would fit all that I had to say in only 20 pages.)

10 years ago — I had just started working my first “professional” job as a software engineer. My office was located on Chicago’s North Side across from Cabrini Green. The firm consisted of the owner, the secretary, myself and one other engineer. I had to answer sales calls as much as I had to write code. The job paid $27k per year. My food budget was limited to $5/day. I worked on the weekends at The Gap on Wabash Avenue across the street from Marshall Fields to supplement my income and be able to buy new clothes. I lived in a carriage house behind a decrepit mansion in Chicago’s North Kenwood neighborhood with 2 roommates. As soon as the autumn came, mice invaded the house.

5 years ago — I’d just left NYC after living there for 4 1/2 year to return to Chicago. I began studying at the Catholic Theological Union for a Master’s in Theology for Inter-religious dialogue between Catholics and Muslims. I was also telecommuting from Chicago into NYC and Dallas for my engineering job. I lived on W. Warner Ave. on Chicago’s North Side with a super-cool roomate that I met on Craig’s List. My dogs, Sophie and Anna came with me from New York. I felt very satisfied and content with the world and my place in it. I was reading Primary Readings in Philosophy for Understanding Theology. Despite my happiness, I felt very broke as I was still paying off my student loans from undergrad and was now paying my graduate tuition.  So, a few months later, I accepted a job transfer to San Franciso and left grad school.

3 years ago — I just moved from San Francisco to Haarlem, the Netherlands. I was working in Rotterdam. I was suffering a broken heart over the Bulgarian. I was still involved with someone else back in San Francisco. And I was falling in love with the Dutchman. I was having all sorts of problems with my legal paperwork with the Dutch authorities and general problems fitting in at my new job. My commute between Haarlem and Rotterdam was 1 1/2 hours long on a good day. I had no friends — just my 2 dogs that I had dragged with me. I also did not have telephone service or internet at home. I was lonely. I was reading Reading Lolita in Tehran: a Memoir in Books on the train back and forth between Rotterdam and Haarlem, grateful that I was even given the opportunity to live my life so much on my own — clearly the women in the book did not have that chance.

1 year ago — The Ukrainian had just moved in. We were spending a lot of time making multiple trips to Ikea to purchase a bed and other needs for our apartment. My sister and her husband had just come to visit. We held a massive party complete with a DJ to celebrate our living together. I was planning my 3 week trip to SE Asia, so I was reading travel websites rather than books. I also went to NYC for a week on a business trip. Felt like I had “come so far” from rural Iowa while in a business meeting at MTV headquarters. I felt very optimistic about my career. Still had no idea that the Ukrainian and I would soon be getting engaged, let alone married. And after that, I would leave MTV.

Yesterday — I walked with a friend from Noe Valley to Fort Mason to meet up with other friends to watch the Blue Angels. Afterwards, I walked to Union Square to meet up with the Ukrainian so we could go home together. While I had been relaxing in the sun with fighter jets doing tricks over my head, the Ukrainian had been studying. We browsed the shops of Union Square and found some things we liked for “the future” but nothing “for now”. We took BART back to 24th St. where he treated me to a “Let’s celebrate trying to make a baby!!” dinner at We Be Sushi on Valencia St.

Today — I regretted not eating raw fish at We Be Sushi last night as I received confirmation that we’re not yet successful in making our baby. I’m only slightly disappointed as we are just beginning our tries and I am not so young anymore. I spent the morning booking the Ukrainian and mine’s tickets to Iowa in November so that we can meet my sister’s new baby that was just born 2 weeks ago. In the early afternoon, we took our babies dogs around the Castro and to Dolores Park. I opted out of the festivities that were going on in Portrero and spent the rest of the afternoon at home catching up with friends on the E. Coast. Now, I’m testing some code for work for tomorrow.

Tomorrow — It’s Monday. Not much to say about that. I hope to either walk or ride my bike to work to enjoy this weather. And I also hope to wrap up this non-enjoyable project I’ve been on. Perhaps I will finish a blog entry I started  week ago. But I have not much to complain about as I am truly grateful I have a good job given these uncertain economic times. I will most likely be reading the NYTimes, keeping an eye on the Dow.

Update on the vet story

For the 5 people who visited this blog overnight, they may have seen the “At the vet” story with a “to be continued” line at the bottom. I yanked it, finished it, and then re-posted it now. Scroll down if you wish to read it in its entirety.

For those of you who don’t like dogs so much, you may not be interested. For those who do, I know you have your own strong feelings about where to draw the line (if any) on your own dogs’ care.

Scroll down to read

At the vet: Choices of economics and love

As soon as the veterinarian walked into our examination room at the SFSPCA (San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Animals), we could tell she was one of these modern vets who were totally into making dogs feel relaxed and loved before beginning and right through the examination. All the vets at the SFSPCA are like this, but this morning’s doctor was even more so. Almost immediately, she had Anna (our brown dog) lying on her back in position for a solid belly rub.

But the doctor wasn’t in the exam room for belly rubs. She meant business — even in her relaxed California, all-loving way. In lieu of a belly rub, Anna got a cold stethoscope stuck to her chest. But the vet did not find what she was looking for. Giving the sky a quizzical look, she moved the stethoscope around Anna’s chest several times before she settle on a spot for Anna’s heartbeat.

“What a mellow dog you are!” the vet exclaimed.

“Is everything ok?” I asked, slightly concerned.

“Yes, she just has a very, very low heart-rate for a dog.”

“Ah yes, she’s very relaxed. Quite lazy, actually.” I was relieved. After Anna’s prior year illness and surgery, I was paranoid that something else would become wrong with her.

From the moment I first picked Anna up out of her cage at the North Shore Animal League’s mobile shelter at the PetCo on 86th and Lex in Manhattan, she has wanted to do nothing but cuddle. And eat. Cuddle, eat, and sleep. That was my Anna. But it was ok. I brought her home from the shelter only a couple of weeks after September 11th. Every night, I would sleep with her in my arms, listening to the sirens of the Emergency Vehicles racing up and down the FDR (East Side Highway) as they rushed to and from Ground Zero. It was an emotional time. Far away from my family and completely and utterly single, I needed the comfort and love Anna offered.

But her weight….well, it was a problem. I took her to the dog park, but instead of running around, she would go from dog owner to dog owner hoping for a pet on the head — or, even better, a treat in her mouth. In the morning, just after sunrise, I would take her to Central Park where dogs were allowed off-leash until 9 a.m. I took a ball and one of those long plastic ball-throwers in hopes of making her play fetch. And she would, for a few moments. But inevitably, a groundskeeper would come along and Anna would run up to him, certain she could con some love out of him too.

So Anna got fat. Her vet in New York got angry at me more and more. Especially as her weight inched closer to 60 pounds. But, short of starving her, I didn’t know what I could do. She was a fat, happy dog.

Then, in the Summer of 2007, Anna developed a stomach blockage. The bills that piled up from the moment the Ukrainian and I rushed her to the emergency room at the San Francisco Veterinary Specialists (SFVS) until she was discharged almost a week later totaled $7000. I cleared out my savings to pay for what I could and then did what I didn’t want to do:  put the rest on my credit card which, at the time, had a $0 balance. I spent every penny I had for the next several months to pay off that balance.

The emotional, physical and financial impact of that death-scare with Anna made me hyper-vigilant regarding everything that went into Anna’s mouth. Not only did I not want her to develop another blockage, i also didn’t want her to suffer from pancreatitis or any other health problems to which fat dogs (and humans!) are prone. The Ukrainian and I went around and around about how much food Anna really did need. How many “treats” — both the doggy kind and leftovers from our plate — were appropriate.

“I know what we’ll do,” said the Ukrainian, seeking to resolve our canine consumption problem once and for all. “We’ll ask the vet!”

“If you want to ask her, then you can. I know what she’ll say:  Anna is fat and we feed her too much.” It was hard to resist Anna’s pleading eyes when she wanted a special treat. I was just as guilty as the Ukrainian, if not in proportion, then in frequency. Anna had a way of making you feel as if you didn’t love her if you didn’t feed her.

And so, on cue, when I called Anna “lazy” to the vet, the Ukrainian put his hand on my hard to signal, “Ok, that’s enough. It’s my turn now to talk to the vet” and proceeded to ask her:  “How much should we be feeding the dog. Because, see…we only give her 1/2 a cup of food in the morning and 1/2 a cup of food at night and maybe a few little treats during the day.”

The vet’s eyes popped out of her. Incredulous, she stared at the Ukrainian before looking down at Anna, shocked that so little food could produce such a fat dog.

“That’s not completely true, ” I countered. “That is all the dog food she eats, but we are always sharing little bits of our meals with her.”

And then came the lecture I didn’t want to hear:  “Dogs should not be eating people food,” began the vet in a friendly, helpful new-age California sort of way.

“Even chicken?” I challenged the vet. The Ukrainian is a huge fan of chicken and it’s quite often that Anna (and her sister Sophie) con him out of some. I wanted the vet to tell me how a little bit of white meat chicken breast could so some harm — because I really didn’t believe it could.

“Only if it’s boiled and there is no fat on it, nor any sauce or anything.” I didn’t bother explaining to her the Ukrainian’s careful examination of *any* chicken he buys as he doesn’t want any fat on it himself.

“And bananas?” I asked. “What about bananas? She gets very upset if we don’t share our bananas with her.”

Again, the vet looked incredulous. Your dog likes bananas? her face read. And then she recovered and returned to her peppy, positive bedside manner. “Ok! So you have a vegetarian doggie.” Yeah, a vegetarian doggie who eats chicken, I silently replied in my own head.

“But no grapes!?!” the vet asked hopefully.

“No, no grapes,” I replied knowing their toxicity to canines. Also no avocados nor anything else that has been considered dangerous to dogs. Google has been our friend every time we have introduced a new food into her diet.

“What I’d like to figure out, ” the vet said returning to her duty, “is why she’s so fat when she eats so little.”

“She’s lazy,” I answered. “She wants to do nothing but lay around and have her belly rubbed all day.” She’s also a pig, but I didn’t say that. Anna is a pig that will eat anything in her sight. She’d be fat if we didn’t feed her a single morsel of food ever. On many occasions, I’ve had to cut our trips to Dolores Park short and leash her up, because all she would do is seek out garbage to eat. This is what caused her stomach blockage the year before in the first place.

“How long has she been fat?” the vet asked, applying her best clinical skills.

“Since she was about a year old. Maybe younger.”

“Well, if she is eating so little, she could be hypothyroidic. But dogs usually don’t develop hypothyroidism until 3 to 5 years of age. If she’s been this fat since, she was one, she probably doesn’t. I’d still like to test her though.””

“How much is that?”


Ok, not so bad. It could be a (relatively) low-cost test to give our dog better and fuller life, I thought, weighing in my mind if such a test was truly necessary.

“And what happens if she tests positive for hypothyroidism?”

“She would have to take a pill twice a day for the rest of her life. But lots of people report their dogs being so much more energetic and active.”

If you want to see Anna energetic and active, simply open the refrigerator door. She will be by your side before the inside bulb lights.

“I don’t know. How much did you say she weighs again?”

“55.8 pounds.”

“That is actually much thinner than she’s ever been. At one point, she weighed in the low 60s. What do you think honey?”

I turned to the Ukrainian. Was I rejecting what could be a vital-test but didn’t seem all that necessary. I wanted some validation that I wasn’t neglecting our dog, or a wake-up call that I should just go ahead and give the test to Anna just to make sure.

But he was no help. “It’s up to you.”

I turned back to the vet…still undecided. $120 wasn’t so bad. But how many tests do you give a dog? And the vet said so herself that Anna didn’t fit the proper stereotype of a dog with hypothyroid.

“Here’s what we can do. We can wait until her next checkup and see if she’s lost any weight. If she has then great, but if not, we can do the test then.” The three of us humans in the room were satisfied with this answer.

“Ok then, now let’s have a look at her teeth!” The peppy vet put her hand into Anna’s mouth to open her lips for a close look. “Ohhhh….she has some tartar.”

Oh dear, I knew what was coming: the lecture on the importance of canine dentail care.

“Do you brush her teeth?” asked the vet.

“No.” I answered unabashedly. I love my dog. I’ve dragged her around the world on all my travels. I have broken up with men who didn’t love her as much as I. I feed her, walk her, lay down next to her and rub her belly, and share my bananas with her. Whenever we rent a car, we line the back seat with blankets and take both the dogs for a joyride — often to Ocean Beach. There is little we don’t do for the day-to-day care and love for our line.

But I draw the line at brushing their teeth. Half-the-time, at night, I am so tired I can barely drag myself to the bathroom sink to brush my own teeth before sleeping. The other half of time, I wake up at 1 a.m., realize I have fallen asleep with all my clothes on, my face unwashed, and my teeth unbrushed. And then I drag my sorry self off the sofa, put my pajamas on, and do my nightly hygiene regiment then, before finally joining the Ukrainian who is fast asleep in our bed.

No, I do not brush my dogs’ teeth.

“Does she need a cleaning?” I asked — this time trying to be proactive about my dog’s health. I tried to recall what, if anything, about any sickness a dog could get from dental neglect.

“She could use one.”

“How much is it? $300?”

“Actually, more than that. We’d have to sedate her and stuff.”

Ouch. We could be talking $500 for a dog’s teeth cleaning. $1000 if we did our other dog’s teeth too. I mentally went through our budget for Q4 2008. $1000 for anything but a true need or emergency simply wasn’t there.

“What would happen if we wait a few months? Is is truly necessary right now?” Again, I didn’t want to neglect my dog. I just wanted to keep a control over our budget. In these uncertain economic times, I’d be putting off my own dental care if I didn’t have dental insurance. I wondered how often the veterinarian clinic was seeing clients put off non-emergency medical care for their pets these days. Surely, I wasn’t the only one these days trying not to spend any money on anything that wasn’t essential.

“The amount of tartar is actually not bad for a 7 year-old dog. And there is no decay. So no, it’s not an emergency. The cleaning can wait.”

I didn’t even need to look at the Ukrainian. I knew he would think it’d be silly to spend so much money on a dog’s teeth cleaning. I’ve spent more money on the dogs than many people in the Former Soviet Union (oil-rich Moscow aside) have spent on their own care. It hadn’t even been a week since we argued over how much it would cost to hire a dog-sitter when we finally made the trip to Kiev to get married and have our Russian Orthodox wedding. I had calculated the cost to be close to $1000 if we were to have a dog-sitter for 2 full weeks for our 2 dogs.

“What? I have to work for a month to pay for dogcare?”

“No, no, I’ll pay for it. You don”t have to pay a thing.”

“It doesn’t matter. $1000 is too much for dogcare.”

I understood his concerns — both at the vet and in discussing dogcare for our future travels. According to him, in Kiev, if you can bring home $1500/month after taxes, you are doing very well. But also there, you can rent an apartment for $300/month. Also, after his mother retires in a more provincial part of Ukraine, she will be expected to survive on a $200/month pension plus whatever she’s managed to save over the years. Here, in San Francisco, she’d barely even be able to eat on that.

But I also knew there was a deeper issue:  We have not even conceived our theoretical baby yet. But already the idea of its existence is already affecting the choices we make. How can we spend less money so we can have more money to afford a baby? Can I give up my chocolate habit? Can the Ukrainian give up his Red Bull? Our subtle mental conception of a baby is already changing us.

I am aware of the stories of dogs being left at shelters after a baby is born. The attention and finances required for the dog are often too much for new parents. I had once considered adopting such a dog from the SPCA in New York before I finally decided on Sophie, our second dog.

But that will not be us. We often joke that any human baby we add to our family will be the 3rd baby, not the first. I intend to keep it that way. I know we will love a human baby more. But still, Anna and her sister Sophie have been my most loyal buds for the past 7 years. I could never abandon them — not just physically at the shelter, but nor in my heart and attention.

Making space for the not-yet-conceived baby

One night, early in the summer of 2007 before the brown doggie became sick or the Ukrainian began living at my — now our — house, the Ukrainian and I took my two dogs out for their late-night walk down Fair Oaks Street in San Francisco. Being so late, I was tired. I wanted the dogs to do their business and then quickly return home and go to bed. But the dogs did not sense my urgency. After taking care of their business, they wanted to sniff every leaf of every bush along the way.

“C’mon…” I chided at every bush. I tugged on their leashes, urging them — no, dragging them — towards 24th St, trying to reach our flat. My patience wore thin. Not now, I thought. Tomorrow morning, I wil take you for a nice walk. For now, LET’S GO!!! My chiding turned into whining. My words to the dogs became shorter, harsher. My tugs on the leash grew stronger.

“Here, let me walk them,” said the Ukrainian gently, reaching to take the leashes from my hands. “You are tired.” And with those words, I stopped in surprise. Here is a man who understands me. Here is a man who wants to make a situation better, not exacerbate it. There was no judgement in his voice. He was not looking for me to be the eternally ever-patient doggy mommy. I fell a little bit more in love with the Ukrainian at that moment.


Anyone who has ever lived with me or spent much time with me in the off-hours of the night know that there is a point when my mind and body just stop. Like a two-year-old, I can keep going and going and doing and doing and talking and listening until BAM! my mind shuts down, my eyes close mid-sentence, and suddenly I cease to be. The fury/wrath suffered by he who dares to push me past my mental and physical limit is strong enough to deter the transgressor from ever wanting to push me gain. Nobody wants to deal with a 2 year-old in a grown woman’s body.

The greatest joys and challenges from marriage (or any sort of committed, domestic partnership) is being forced to look in the mirror and seeing your own weaknesses. Alone, you can let your quirks and nuances and varying neuroses play out however they will, or control your environment so much that these varying particulars to your personality can sleep as never challenged — but together with another’s putting up with yourself and altering your environment by their mere presence, suddenly you are forced to look in the mirror and say “My, don’t I look ridiculous!”

And so there I was on Saturday night. I was looking for the tweezers. They had been missing for a week and I had a couple of stray hairs I increasingly wanted to be rid of with each day that passed without the tweezers being found. I searched the medicine cabinet, of course. And moved on to the coffee table. And the computer desk in the living room. I left out the kitchen — for never in my life, could I remember, ever tweezing anything in the kitchen. I searched the bedroom. The bookshelves and the nightstand. Surely, they would be on the nightstand. I shifted the stacks of unread mail and NetFlix envelopes around and AHA! I found the opened tweezers case, but no tweezers. Inspired by this hopeful clue, I searched the nightstand more frantically for the tweezers, shoving aside the orchid plant that our Ukrainian florist had given us for our wedding (as a token, I’m sure, to make us feel better for spending so much on something as fragile as flowers) and had been sitting on our nightstand ever since…and that’s when I saw it. IT. The multi-circular water stains left by the pot from three months of twice-weekly waterings.

I lost it. It was 11:30 at night. Our house was cluttered. Dirty, even. Below me was a piece of furniture that was less than six months old that was already tarnished. I looked around the bedroom and saw the clothes that had been pulled off late-at-night strewn across the bookshelves. One leg of the bedframe had been gnawed on by our black dog in June. We had yet to repair it. In the living room, the center of the floor was taken up by an extra-large drying rack on which the clothes we washed the day before hung. I was certain there must be dirty dishes in the sink. Suddenly, our large 1 BR 19th century Victorian railroad-style flat seemed small enough to crush me. My inner control-freak unleashed by my year spent in the ever-so-tidy Netherlands wasn’t pleased.

I sat down on the floor. Collapsed, rather. The metaphysical, existential weight of our cluttered house had crushed me after all. I started crying in despair — where would I ever begin to make sense of this mess? Would there ever be an end to my cleaning once it began? Should I hire someone? No, I couldn’t hire someone. They wouldn’t know what to do with all the clothes, the mail, and all the other seemingly random tidbits to our lives, many of which weren’t even needed.

“Baby, what’s wrong?”

“This. This is wrong.” I spread my hands out so that he could see all the clutter I could see. “I can’t live like this.”

“Baby, it’s fine. It’s late. We’ll tidy up the house tomorrow. First thing in the morning. Now let’s go to bed.” The Ukrainian has sensed my inner two-year-old had woken up and his 33 year-old rational wife had gone to sleep.

“No, no. We need to start now. If we start in the morning, it will never get done.” With these words, I got up from the bedroom floor and went into the living room, determined to tackle the clean, dry clothes hangin on the drying rack that was taking up half our living room floor and was contributing to my claustrophobia. I folded until I reached shirt #4. I remembered then why there clothes everywhere in our house. My closet — which was just off the kitchen — had become the spot we put everything that didn’t have a spot. In recent weeks, it had become so full that I could no longer reach my clothing rack and drawers. Nor did the laundry basket have a spot in it any longer. The closet was the root of all our problems. I knew my limits enough not to begin such a large task so late at night.

I returned to the bedroom. The Ukrainian was curled up on our bed with the chewed-up leg. I laid down next to him, spooning his back. Our bodies lied perpendicular to the bed’s head so that our heads all but touched the bedroom’s wall. The time was pushing midnight. The Ukrainian was tired from working 2 jobs and going to school full-time. I was tired from my new job, traveling, a persistent two-week cough, and the feeling that I was supposed to keep it together. All. The. Time.

“I can’t live like this,” I said. My voice calmer than it had been a 1/2 hour before.

“I know,” he said. “We will fix it.”

“How can we be talking about having a baby when we can’t even keep our own lives together?”

And from that question, my two-year-old self went back to sleep and my grown up rational adult self re-emerged. The Ukrainian and I began to communicate as a couple — as hopeful-parents-to-be. How would we manage our lives so that our apartment is one where we could have a baby and keep it safe? How would we share the day-to-day housekeeping responsibilities between ourselves so that our house wouldn’t continue in its chaos? And what things could each of us do to make the other happy, so that any theoretical child we might have would grow up in a harmonious household and not be subject to histrionics. And where, oh where, would we put the baby?

I looked at the bookshelves hidden under a pile of clothes across from the bed. “I was thinking there…” I said pointing. “We could get rid of the shelves and everything on them and put the baby there. The crib. And maybe a changing table…” my voice trailed off…

“Next to the window?” the Ukrainian asked. “But that wouldn’t be…”

“That wouldn’t be healthy,” I finished his sentence for him. “It’ll be too cold.” (Our apartment lacks a proper heat source and the rainy San Francisco winters makes our bedroom extremely damp and chilly.)

“But where?” I asked. “I can’t think of any other place for it.”

The Ukrainian’s eyes skirted the room. He lifted his body up on his elbow and turned his head. “There. Between the bed and the closet, away from the window.”

And I looked. My eyes mentally measured the space he picked out. Yes, there would be room for a crib. A small one and we’d need to keep everything tidy. But there’d be room.

A new commitment — our anniversary’s defining moment redux

We crossed Dolores Street at 20th Street towards Dolores Park. The slight September drizzle we were under was an anomaly. But it gave me a good excuse to hide under the hood of my red Bauhaus Goretex parka I had special ordered in Rotterdam just 3 years ago. I wore little under the parka — just a red camisole, and blue and grey leggings — as I had been sulking in bed a mere 15 minutes before. I was upset. The Ukrainian had remembered our 6 months anniversary, but not in time to order the cake. Or purchase a present for surprise upon waking. In protest, I had reverted to my 10 year-old self, spurning all of his efforts to go downtown and buy me a present. Or to take me out to dinner. Or to do anything, that would again, put a smile on my face. Never again, would we have a 6 month civil ceremony anniversary of being legally committed to each other. If this was how we were starting off our marriage, how little would we notice our 16th anniversary.

The Ukrainian tried to make light of the missing cake and other little presents he used to bring to celebrate the milestones of our relationship.

“I was busy,” he said.

“So. When will you not be busy?” I replied. Unfairly, I gave him no room for excuses even though he’d been working 2 jobs and going to school full-time.

I noticed the bag in his hand. “What’s that?” I asked.

Oh, it’s nothing. He replied.

It’s not nothing, I told him. There is a Barbie doll on it. And glitter. And a silver bow.  And tissue paper.

A present, I thought! 🙂 He had remembered.

Give it to me, I said as I tried to grab the bag out of his hands.

“No, no, ” he said laughing. “It’s nothing.” He held the bag high over his head. I started laughing too, trying to pull his arm down to at least open my anniversary present.

At last, he relented. He let me grab the bag out of his hands. And, ferociously, like a small child, I reached in searching through the tissue paper for my present.

I found the card, and I found…what? Nothing? Where are my chocolates? were the thoughts that went through my head. Where is a cute little trinket to mark the occasion. I had mentioned many times how much I dreamed of a nice cake or some fancy chocolates for our 1/2 year anniversary.

But there was the envelope. Inside, could very well be a gift card or some other unusual item picked up the last minute. So I opened it. And inside was a card stating “I know we are not as romantic as we used to be…” with a list of all the ways a couple loses it’s romance over time.

I wanted to cry. After only 6 months, we were without romance. I thought these were the sort of cards that 45 year-olds married for 15 years and with 3 kids gave each other. We’d been married 6 months. And during most of that time, we’d been too busy to see much of each other — other than the obligatory “Please pass the toothpaste” routine at 8 a.m. as we both got ready for work.

“The dogs want to go to the park,” I responded. I had no words. After only 6 months of marriage we had become an old married couple communicating through the needs of our kids — or, in this case, our dogs.

“Come with us,” he said.

“No, you guys go. I wish to stay here.”

He asked again. And again, I said no. I was too hurt to want to spend time with him or to allow our anniversary day become happy again. I didn’t want to set the tone that missing presents on anniversaries would be acceptable.

But he asked again. And one more time after that, he asked. “Come with us”, he said. “Come celebrate our anniversary with a walk to the park.” I ignored him and looked out our window from our bedroom facing 24th Street. It was raining. In September. In San Francisco. An unusual occurrence. I could hear the dogs skimpering about. They knew where they were going. I heard their leashes clang together as the Ukrainian grabbed them off the hook. I heard him rustling around for some plastic bags to clean up after the dogs in the park. And I heard him open the door.

I looked away from the window. He had one hand on the doorknob. The dogs were already in the hall. He looked into the bedroom. “Are you sure you don’t want to come?” And I considered. It was not even a moment, but I considered. This is how divorces happen. This is how the distance grows. The silence and the resentment. The shutting out of the other.

“I will come,” I responded, before he could shut the door. I looked around. I saw the rain out the window. I saw myself wearing almost nothing but bedclothes. And I saw the red parka — itself a symbol of a new life I had hoped to be a happy one not so very long in the Netherlands where it had rained almost daily. But my lover there had shut me out. As try as I might, I could never reach him. I could never communicate. Whatever dreams we had to share our lives together were blocked by our complete inability to communicate with each other. When one night, his ultimatums had gone too far, I told him to leave. He did. And when he shut the door, he never came back except to help me pack up for my return to the States. I never saw him again.

“I will come,” I said. And I grabbed the red parka to throw on over my bed clothes, grateful that we lived in California where no one would find this particular combination an oddity. Or an offense to their fashion sensibilities.

We walked to the park. We tried to change the upsetness at the failed anniversary celebration into a celebration at the Ukrainian’s successful effort to get a raise. We did the math, trying to plan our future together financially. But none of the math brought a smile to my face. I was happy for the Ukrainian’s and thus our success. But I was unhappy with something else. The lack of a cake? Of chocolates? No…

“I want a baby.” I burst out. It was a matter-of-fact statement. And it was nothing new for us. But this time, this time under the protection of the hood of my red parka and of the rain, there was a new forcefulness to my declaration. Forget the chocolates, forget the romance. Give me a baby.

“It’s too early, don’t you think?”

“What?” I asked. “Financially, maybe. But for any other reason, no. We have been married 6 months. It’s time”

“Well…” the Ukrainian thought out loud. “I did get this raise. And if we start trying now, then by the time the baby comes, I will have another raise.”

“Really?” I ask. “You are really ready for a baby?”

Lets start trying now, he said. Let’s start trying now.

The road to nowhere

I left rural Iowa at 18 — never intending to go back. For the most part I haven’t. Even at my worst, down, out, unemployed broke self, I used Iowa only as a staging ground. A place to store my bags while I booked tickets to either coast, looking for that place where I could most be myself. While the leaving was easy, the staying away has been hard. I miss my family. I miss reliable people. I fear waking one day and realizing that my parents are gone and I missed out on so many years of having them in my life.

And sometimes…I simply miss me. I miss the genuine midwestern friendliness I had. The curiosity. The excitement at being in a new place — even if that place was hell. I miss trusting other people — but I have since learned that you can only trust others if you trust yourself. I admire the people I know who have left similar spots and have held onto that integral core of goodness. For I have not.

These thoughts are not from nowhere. On May 10th, in celebration of the Ukrainian’s birthday, we rented a car, loaded it up with the dogs, and headed for a daytrip to Lake Tahoe. For the most part, the day was full of great fun and I will post the pics in a future post. But towards the end of the day, as we were trying to complete our sunset drive around the entirety of Lake Tahoe, we took a wrong turn and eventually found ourselves in Carson City — the state capital of Nevada.

I have driven across the U.S. a couple of times now. I’ve visited Latin America, Asia and have lived in Europe and other parts of the States. And while there are certainly worse places to live (a garbage dump in S. America comes to mind), I’ve yet to encounter a place more wretched than Nevada (and here, by writing this, I realize I will never, ever be able to run for politics. I’m ok with that). Once you get away from the casinos and shopping malls of Reno and Las Vegas, there is very little left in Nevada other than some federal prisons and a few nuclear test sites.

“I can’t wait to tell my mother we’ve been to Nevada,” exclaimed the Ukrainian jumping up and down in his seat as we drove.

“I don’t really think that Nevada is the most exciting place to write home about,” replied my jaded, bored no-longer-from-the-midwest self. Where is my sunset over Lake Tahoe, I wondered.

“Oh, but it is. It’s the site of the U.S. nuclear experiments during the Cold War. I grew up hearing about this place.”

And there you have it folks, the matter of perspective that makes cross-cultural marriages so refreshing (if challenging at times). What was a minor mention in some history class of mine at some point in my education — “Yeah, the U.S. performed nuclear tests somewhere. Nevada. And some atoll in the S. Pacific” — was the stuff of legend in my Ukrainian’s Soviet education. I’m sure my Ukrainian and his Soviet classmates got a map with the exact location of each test performed while midwestern schoolchildren got “Nevada. It’s out west. Nobody lives there — well, except some Elvis impersonators who will marry those rich, immoral, and impatient enough to forgo God, a blood test, and a 3 day waiting period”.

But outside of Las Vegas (and possibly Reno) there aren’t any Elvis impersonators. There isn’t really much of anybody really — as my history class proclaimed. And for the people who are there — how and why did they end up there? You can’t really set up a farm in Nevada. I suppose the Federal penitentiaries provide some employment, but who says “Hey Ma! Let’s pack up the family and move to Nevada. I am going to work security detail at a a federal prison!” (Hmmm…maybe they do actually).

Regardless, the people I have encountered in rural Nevada bear the face and carriage of ones who struggle to eke out a basic living. Their faces seem prematurely old — their skin tough as are their souls. The toughness frightens me. And each time I’ve pulled over at a gas station in Nevada, it has always been with the attitude of get in, fill up, and get out. Most of the people are probably quite nice, but they are much tougher than me. And I don’t want trouble.

But not my Ukrainian. He is so kind-hearted, so un-jaded, that he doesn’t see or chooses to ignore what I view to be the imminent dangers in the world. As we head out of the northern outskirts of Carson City, we realize that we may have missed the road back to California. Not one to be afraid of asking for directions, the Ukrainian does a u-turn and pulls over at a 7-11.

Great! I think. We’ll get pointed back to Interstate 80 and soon be on our way to San Francisco.

Great! the Ukrainian thinks. I’ll get some directions…some food…some Red Bull…stretch my legs…use the toilet…relax a bit. And then we’ll go back home.

While the Ukrainian is enjoying our time in Carson City, Nevada and I’m sitting inside the car with the doors locked fearing for my life and virtue, one of the tough local Nevadans approaches my Ukrainian.

“Are you the one who scratched my car?” the local asks. He is young man in his early 20s, looking like someone who is used to looking for trouble. He is accompanied by 2 young women, and driving a silver sports car with doors that open up rather than out. It’s not a Lamborghini.

My Ukrainian smiles. “No man. We are just sitting here having a rest and some dinner.”

The man and my Ukrainian exchange some more words. The man is trying to raise a ruckus. He wants to blame someone, anyone, for the scratch on his car. But my Ukrainian is oblivious. He keeps talking, smiling, laughing in the most kind-hearted, genteel away. As much as the Nevadan tries to find fault with my Ukrainian, he can’t. My Ukrainian has simply put him too much at ease. They exchange a few friendly last words, shake hands, and the Nevadan departs.

I am relieved, of course. My fear of finding trouble in Nevada has been ameliorated — for now. But more than that, I am jealous. I long for that innocent, good-heartedness that most people find hard to resist. I once had it — back when I was fresh from Iowa and not yet jaded with the world.

I do know that we look for in our lovers what we are missing in ourselves. And I’m glad that my Ukrainian possesses the good that I miss from what used to be me.