What We Are Made Of
Chesnok was born of a single thread slid through the hands of my childhood friends. My mom sewed my clothes and seeing her squint at the sewing needle over the years, I was convinced sewing required maintaining the longest string. I lined up my friends like a train along the fence outside the house, holding the ridiculously long thread, and guided them as I pulled the needle through the material and led the train back around for another loop. His body is made of partner-less socks, a brown threadbare torso, red limbs, and a round red head tied at the top like an onion bulb. His insides are stuffed with fabric scraps from my mom's creations, a mush of tiny remnants of coats, dresses, curtains, and handkerchiefs protruding from his little belly. He was my very own Frankenstein's monster inspired Chipollino, “Chesnok” (a.k.a. Garlic Head).
He is the same size as a Barbie, his body pliable and easier to pose than a hard plastic doll. I tried to make him a conventional man. A real man needed a wife and kids, and so to start I sewed him a wife. The Wife's crooked limbs were made of a white and blue floral sheet, cut haphazardly in a rush. It seemed only natural that the two would have kids, two more sock people with shrunken proportions. The baby did not resemble either of the parents, a tiny grey thing with frayed edges I didn't bother trimming. I had plenty of other normal dolls, but Chesnok was my favorite, and accompanied me on all adventures.
There is a photograph of my parents and me when we landed at the Logan Airport, walking outside the terminal. My mom's hand is gripping mine and a small black briefcase in the other. Her blonde hair is a neat bob, a hairstyle she hasn't deviated from since. She has a determined look on her face and good posture. My dad is on my opposite side, his hands grasping the lapels of his brown leather jacket captured in a moment of opening it and he is looking away from us. We wore all our clothes when we arrived. I am dressed in a turtleneck sweater, elastic waistband pants on top of my best tights, a knitted V-neck vest, and my royal blue velvet headband. It was October and I wore white Keds two sizes too big, but their soles unglued before I had a chance to grow into them.
My parents packed as much of home as they could in three oversized red-and-white checkered nylon bags: a red down feather comforter, because someone told them these were nowhere to be found in America, feather pillows for the same reason, fine china plates, a teapot, my mom's hardy iron skillet and cooking pot, box of vintage dominos, stack of old photographs tucked in a manilla envelope, my grandmother's sparkly theater clutch, and one entire bag entirely devoted to my dolls and stuffed animals.
Chesnok was pressed against my heart inside my jacket while his Wife and kids were in the checked-in luggage. All our baggage was lost and reported missing. While the search was underway, we embarked on our new life in a new country, new city, new one-bedroom apartment, new school, and color television. My mom started taking English night classes at a community college and worked as a home health aide and housekeeper at a hotel downtown. My dad worked a series of odd jobs, none of them required talking.
I kept raising my hand in school whenever I wanted to be called on. It was quite a culture shock not needing to ask permission to speak or excuse myself to the restroom, sitting crossed legged on the floor at gym, drinking chocolate milk in a paper carton out of a plastic straw, or the fact that ketchup was considered a vegetable and even more shocking - that it was free. At the apartment, Chesnok grew restless without his family. He sat on the windowsill and watched the seasons change.
The Barbie dolls from my former life were made of lightweight plastic. They had bristle-like hair, clumps of strands pulled through the sparse root holes punctured in their skulls. They had haphazardly drawn faces, one eye bigger than the other, drooping pink lipstick. I was stunned by the superior quality of American Barbies, who were sturdier, had rubbery waists allowing them to bend their torsos, a full head of soft hair, and meticulously painted life-like faces. Chesnok fit perfectly into Ken's beige khakis, beautifully hemmed and accessorized with a leatherette belt secured on the back with a Velcro strip. Chesnok enjoyed his wardrobe upgrade, but the Barbie girls were out of his league and he avoided Ken at all costs in case he wanted his pants back.
He sat on the windowsill, watching the snowflakes twirl in slow motion, and remembered the Wife. He recalled they fought a lot back home but now that he was on his own, he felt an unfamiliar heaviness he assumed was either homesickness, or loneliness, or both. He didn't feel like doing anything besides sitting on the window or lying in my bed. We watched the princess in Aladdin climb on top of a magic flying carpet. I didn't have magic but thought about making an air balloon. I tied the handles of a white plastic shopping bag on a small wicker basket and seated him in it. I used my mom's knitting yarn to tie him in a makeshift harness to make sure he could be reeled back in. I opened the living room window, the one facing away from the street because someone told my parents children in America are not allowed to be left home alone.
I flung the air balloon outside the window and watched the wind open it up to the sky, sunlight filtering through its Thank You for Shopping at Shaws, Chesnok experiencing his first real fun overseas. His first flight quickly became his first fall, a deflated upside down Thank You draped over the crisscrossed telephone wires. The yarn harness worked and Chesnok did not fall out of the air balloon, but rather remained stuck. I tugged and pulled to no avail and resorted to kicking him down with a broom stick. Unfortunately, the plastic bag couldn't be reached and remained on the wire, bracing the elements.
One night I was lying on my left side, Chesnok tucked under my chin, and felt a sudden stabbing pain in my chest. It was excruciating to exhale too quickly or inhale too deeply. The pain came and went without warning, night and day. My mom would find me whimpering or slumped over, bumping my forehead on her side while she was cooking. Out on the balcony, she would walk me through breathing as slowly as necessary until the fresh air did its trick and I could stand up straight again. The tests at the doctors' offices were all inconclusive, so I learned to breathe with intention.
The fabric on Chesnok's chest had worn thin and a small tear developed in the center. I stitched him with a dark brown thread I found in my mom's box of sewing supplies, but before doing so, checked on his heart. His insides were a mixture of the remnants of my old life. His heart was lodged inside, made of a torn scrap from the red blanket we buried our dog in. The operation stirred something profound in him, making him feel - for the first time - incredibly small and fragile.
Nearly six months had passed, and it was time to face the possibility Chesnok would never see his family again. I decided it was time to introduce a new woman in his life. See if it will lead anywhere. I had a pair of polyester yellow socks I didn't like, they were too bright and made my feet itch. I filled her body with white cotton balls my mom used to remove her makeup. The New Woman was alluring. She had a large bosom and wore a green striped tube top. I painted a large pout on her face with a red permanent marker.
At school, I labeled the capital cities of all the States, their flowers and birds, on a coloring worksheet. I memorized and pledged allegiance to the flag in the morning with my classmates. A kind blue-eyed boy, standing in the row in front of me, would glance back and throw me a questioning look, because I recited the words but did not place my hand over my heart. He, too, lowered his hand and clenched it in a small fist over his stomach. The teacher said we were doing it wrong but we both knew we didn't promise our hearts to anyone. Later I learned a new kind of heartache on the playground, when I witnessed another girl kissing him on a swing.
The New Woman was a different kind of beauty, where nothing was left to the imagination except to picture what she looked like without makeup. Chesnok liked to observe her and the Barbie girls chatting under the windowsill. He climbed down one day and The New Woman suddenly pushed him against the wall and tried to kiss him, which made him very uncomfortable. The Barbies watched in disbelief as he writhed away.
News came that our bags were sighted at Dublin airport and were en route to Logan. My parents tried to hold back their excitement just in case it fell through. Until, at last, Chesnok and I were packed in the backseat of our rusty two-door hatchback to pick up the pieces. My parents had exchanged what little savings they had left for the car with some relatives in the area. It had a hole in the floor in front of the backseat but would pass inspection for a couple of years because no one lifted the floor mats. I pulled the mat slightly to the side and Chesnok and I observed the world beneath, all the dirt and rubble rushing past like falling stars.
Two of the bags were torn, sliced open, several items forever left behind: the feather-stuffed pillows, our old dominos, my dad's books, cooking pots, and whatever else we couldn't remember. My bag of toys was intact, and I was thrilled to find Chesnok's wife nestled underneath the remains of our past life, her slanted face smiling wildly. I unfolded the scarf, inside, their children were safe and sound. Chesnok was a hugger, not a kisser.
Years later, on the bottom of the closet in my old bedroom, I would find a round red cardboard box with a cartoonish drawing on the lid. A thin girl, with extraordinarily long legs, is sitting on a moped on a stylish Parisian sidewalk. Inside it, Chesnok and the Wife have been hugging for nearly two decades. The tender position of their bodies reminds me of the photograph of two ancient embracing skeletons. When I lift Chesnok, I discover the imitation leather belt on his beige pants has disintegrated and black dust crumbles in my hands. The Wife's cheeks are eternally blushing pink.
When my husband and I were dating, I wanted to show him where I came from and took him to the apartment where I grew up. The wood paneling on the building had aged, showing layers upon layers of cracking, weathered paint. The balcony leaned to the side and looked like it could, at any moment, detach and collapse on the adjacent building. Climbing the wobbly gray wooden staircase, a silky black cat turned his face to a dark room in an opened window and children's laughter echoed behind locked doors. The telephone wires strained against a blue sky. Then I saw it, the tattered plastic bag wrapped around one of the wires outside the living room window, like the skin of a snake still unraveling.
Olga (Olia) Katsovskiy
, MHA, lives in Boston and works in a non-profit healthcare organization. In addition, she is a Writing Instructor at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. Her essays appear in Barzakh Magazine, Nixes Mate Review, Adelaide Literary Magazine
, and forthcoming in Atticus Review: The Attic
. She enjoys nonfiction and is devoted to daily journaling, obscure books, and good coffee. For more, visit her blog, theweightofaletter.com