Nora puts herself in her art. Pointing to her sketch of a pregnant woman sitting on a turtle, she said, “See here. It’s my nose. I can’t paint without putting it in.” I bought this sketch, The Spanish Lady, from Nora in 1998. For a $100. I smuggled the piece out of Ukraine, rolled up in my guitar case.
On Wednesdays Nora and I would hang out at her studio, which occupied the top floor of an old Soviet Government building. “The fucking Minister of the fucking Interior took his bribes right here, right in this room. What a piece of shit! Of course, the minute the Soviets left, he took his money, in truckloads, across the border. He went directly to his favorite bank in Switzerland and deposited millions. Very generous guy. He left us this lousy building.”
To get to her studio, I walked up three floors, carefully navigating around pieces of concrete chipped from the broken stairs. The stairwell was always dark. “There’s no use putting a lightbulb in the lamp in the stairwell,” Nora scoffed. “We Ukrainians can spot a free light bulb when we see one.” The former Minister had a nice office. Light flooded into the massive room through floor to ceiling windows. The windows looked down over a river and onto the 16th century remains of a castle, the last remnants of a king whose name no one remembers.
Nora and I always drank stale coffee. Thick enough to stand a spoon in. “It’s Turkish coffee. That’s what I call it,” Nora said with a half smile. “It is an excuse for the terrible coffee I’m addicted to.” I brought cookies, from the kiosk around the corner. The cookies were best dunked in Nora’s coffee. The bad coffee disguised the even worse cookies.
Nora smoked. I can still smell the smoke mixed with the smell of bitter coffee. “Here, Maureen, smoke this,” she said as she handed me a cigarette. “It is all we have. You smoke and then you will feel just as disgusting as I do. That’s what friends do for each other. We Ukrainians are depressed. So we smoke and we drink coffee. Unless we drink vodka. But, I don’t have any vodka today.”
Don wrote in his diary, “Nora and Maureen have formed the International Wednesday Art and Philosophy Club. It is a secret group that does really cool stuff, but I am not allowed to attend.” That was Nora’s idea, not mine. But, it was best. She was quite shy.