by f

Aleksandra Buha's "Looking Away"

This is a Subrosa entry from April 02, 2008.

When I was ten and my grandfather was dying from leukemia, my mother went to stay with him at the hospital indefinitely. Amma did this with my grandmother as well when she was under observation for her Hepatitis B, but unlike last time, my mother’s distant cousins wouldn’t be there to take care of me. N Chitti, L atha, H atha were the ones who ran the house while she was last gone, but my mother was pretty apprehensive about that happening again–she was paranoid about having people in the house when she wasn’t there–and this time my father was also wasn’t willing to come home early from work.

My brother went with my mother to India as he did last time–he was far too young for him to stay alone, even with a babysitter. Somehow, my mother foolishly thought that my family over there would take care of him. Little did she know how well, but that’s another story.

However, my parents still needed to find someone willing to take care of me after school. Our cleaning lady, a woman named Irena, recommended a friend of hers from Uzbekistan–Aliona.

Aliona had green/hazel eyes, depending on the lighting of the room. Her hands were long and polished and she was pregnant, though she hadn’t yet begun to show. (Her face was every bit the polished Russian-doll ideal, the one that makes K’s friend go crazy for Slavic women. Porcelain-faced damsels in distress, he told me, who wouldn’t want to have sex with one of those? I’d actually thought of Aliona then, and became very, very upset.)

When my mother showed her the spice cabinet and explained to her how to cook basic curries, Aliona looked at the spice labels as she held the bottles in her translucent hands and silently whispered their Uzbek names. “Jeera” my mother said, finally showing her the cumin, and finally thousands of years of Silk Road trading clicked and Aliona whispered, “Zeera”.

Aliona seemed permanently tranquil and now I know that in her case it was a sign of severe unhappiness. I didn’t really understand that, then, and I used to come home from school and watch her clutch her belly, reach for the phone and watch me guiltily. She would pick up the phone, begin to dial a few numbers and look me in the face and leave the phone on. We’d listen to the automated voice telling us either to hang up or dial a number and I’d shut it off and put the phone away.

Deeper into procrastinating on my homework, I’d look over at her from the upstairs railing to find her reading my mother’s romance novels on the sofa. She would pause her finger on certain words and rub her forehead with her palm of her other hand.

I asked her if she needed help, and crept downstairs. She pointed out words like, “brassiere” and “decolletage” and I had to admit to being stumped. We looked up those words in the dictionary and laughed at the picture of a brassiere. Aliona pretended to strut herself and laughed. She had a slim figure and the woman on the cover of the book was well-endowed, at the very least.

Every now and then she’d receive a phone call at home and on the end would be a very gruff voice almost demanding to speak “to his wife”–the only words I could understand in his entreaty–and gave the phone to her. Almost immediately she began to talk to him. I wouldn’t say she was fearful but she was definitely either apprehensive about something or unwilling to relinquish the distance between them. “Later,” she kept saying, “I come later.”

When she clutched her stomach once and said that she was thirsty, I asked if she was in any pain and if she was, I’d call my father and ask him what medicines I could give her. She declined.

“You like babies?” she asked.

“Not really,” I said, and I remember making a face, “They’re smelly.” I tried to think of other reasons not to like babies, to justify what was apparently an unorthodox opinion, when she said,

“Me too.”


One afternoon, the two of us watched Pride and Prejudice. It was perfect watching for her, I thought. After all, Colin Firth was just as shirtless on the cover of the movie as any of those heroes were on the covers of my mother’s romance novels.

Every time Colin Firth came out of the bathtub–and we watched this scene perhaps fifteen or twenty times over the next few days she was here–she used to giggle and put a hand to her mouth. She perfected the phrase, “more popcorn”, please, as if this oral fixation brought her closer to the British countryside fantasy of handsome husband and domestic felicity.

The phone calls kept coming, and the arguments got more and more violent and would often end in tears.

But when there were quiet times, and there were plenty, she would tell me about her life in Uzbekistan, her friends from school, the skirts they had to wear. Occasionally they would watch Bollywood movies together, a relic of the India-Soviet non-agression pact of the seventies under Indira Gandhi. Aliona’s still almost-flat belly and hips were pros when it came to gyrating to the healthy beats of the dance songs. Together, we raided my mother’s movie cabinet and I would watch her dance in her skirts to songs like “Mehbooba, Mehbooba” from Sholay. She was even prettier than Helen in the movie, I think. She knew how to move her hands, too, in the hand mudras (rough trans.: positions)

Occasionally, we invented new dances together.

We even cooked together–Aliona, apparently, was a neophyte when it came to cooking, and so my mother’s instructions hadn’t really stuck. She would boil the vegetables and then season them–or would forget the salt or certain spices. “People–they do this for us,” she complained, “I know not how to do this.”

She could clean like a wizard but she was an awful cook. So we came up with clever, but ultimately awful, spice mixtures for our curries. That didn’t work either. Finally, my father started bringing home food from the office.

After four or five weeks or so of this idyllic time together, Aliona would be home when I came back in a deep funk. She wouldn’t move, or turn on the television. I would drag her by the hand, attempt to get her up, but she’d flick me away or not notice me at all. Every now and then she’d make it into the kitchen and stare at a pot, as if by looking food would appear.

This disturbed me. Her funk was toxic. So I got a deck of cards from somewhere and began to play one-person Spit. Aliona watched the methodic slapping/movement of cards and suggested we play rummy–so we played cards for awhile. Cards are intellectual–but it’s also a relief from intellectual and emotional stress when it becomes a methodical exercise. Rummy, and then War, and afterwards we played a kind of bootleg 304 (apparently, it’s a Soviet Bloc Card Game but now that I think on it, it’s pretty damn close to standard issue 304).

I think that this improved her mood, and soon we ate ice cream and played cards, and ventured back to the romance movies.

One day, she even brought a pile of ribbons and braided them into my hair. She took pictures with a disposable camera, of she and me, and of me wearing her layered skirts. I never saw the pictures.


Then again, after two more weeks of this, I came home to find her in a funk on the sofa once more, another woman’s arms–I recognized her as Sveta’s employee–around her, urging her to drink from a cup of tea on the coffee table. When I wanted to ask Aliona what was going on, she started to weep and shake the cordless phone in her hand. That was definitely a signal for me to stay in my room, for me to figure out–underneath all the Russian–what was going on.

The next day, she didn’t come back. I watched “Mehbooba, Mehbooba” twice. Without Aliona, though, it wasn’t any fun.


Later that day, another woman let herself in. “You okay?” she said, “Couldn’t find the house.”

“Where’s Aliona,” I asked.

“Her husband is a bad man,” was all she said.


I found out later that Aliona’s husband, back in Uzbekistan, had had an affair with her younger cousin and, as a consequence, married her. Somehow the question of bigamy never came up, but for Aliona, apparently, this marriage was something of her own choosing and the betrayal hurt her more than the bigamy.

I didn’t have the heart to be friendly with the myriad of women–though better cooks–who came over and would make sure that I wasn’t wrecking the house out of order. For the four hours a day that I was looked after, I sat and read stacks of books, unwilling to believe that Aliona wouldn’t let herself in, slip in the Pride and Prejudice or Persuasion or even the Gone with the Wind and watch. I waited for the familiar call for “more popcorn”.

When my mother came back, Irena was there to greet her with the whopping babysitting and cleaning bill. My mother asked to see–and thank Aliona.

“Where is she?” my mother asked.

Sveta colored slightly and said, “She went back to Uzbekistan to have baby,” she said. “I will tell her thank you.”


Last week, Irena came over to pick up two of her employees from our house and I, for some reason, came across those ribbons at the back of my drawer underneath the patchwork bag my grandmother gave my mother to give to me when she came back. I asked after Aliona.

At first, she was confused, thinking with her hands on her forehead, and then she remembered. “Ah, Aliona,” she said.

“So what happened to her?” I asked.

“Gone.” she said.


She nodded and called out to my mother that she was leaving.

3 Comments to “Aliona”

  1. F: That was such an endearing story. I loved the way you took the narrative through a child’s perspective. You are amazing! Thank you for sharing this with us! 🙂

  2. Woah… it’s these fleeting glimpses into other people’s lives that show us how close we are to things we thought were reserved to the evening news.

    It’s alarming to look back on such things and see what one may have missed as a child. But it sounds like you knew enough.

    I hope Aliona is ok… that her child is ok…

  3. I hope that Aliona and her child are okay. This is actually a very sobering recount of actual events. I think that what Irena said about her in the end of this piece is very ominous and worrisome. I think that this is the sort of recount of events that people NEED to hear about. These things are not just things that happen to people we don’t know, or to friends of friends of friends. These things happen in our own back yards, these things happen to OUR friends, these things happen to good people whom we care about. Often times we never know about it until its too late to do something about it. But, if more people could understand that these things DO happen, right here, and that people in these situations need help regardless of nationality or immigration/citizenship status, we could possibly change the hearts and minds of some people. Which might, in turn, lead to more programs (and more/proper advertisement of such programs so that people are all aware of their options) for everyone that needs help.

    Just having the programs there for people doesn’t do much good if hardly anyone who needs that help knows that those programs are there. Adequate advertisement can and does play a large role. And if people are afraid of what might happen if they go there (say someone they don’t want finding out finds out, or they don’t have citizenship, or even are here illegally) then people who desperately need help of some kind won’t go even if they do know about it. These programs need to be neutral territory.

    This doesn’t help Aliona now, but if things like this were implemented and adequately advertised and were neutral, it could help countless people now and in the future.

    Again, I hope that Aliona and her child are alright. Thank you very much for sharing this. This is eye-opening, inspiring, and touching all at once.

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