The house Arevik grew up in is big, with a massive crystal chandelier in the entry way. She opens the door and I bend to take off my shoes.
“Petk e chi,” she tells me. No need. I leave them on.
It’s cold inside too.
“Doo Russeren ches khosoom?” She asks me. You don’t speak Russian?
I shake my head. I don’t speak Russian. Only English and survivable Armenian.
She smirks at me. “It’s a shame,” she tells me. “Since you look so Russian.”
I’ve been told I’ve got the face of a St. Petersburg girl— wide and pale, framed with dirty blonde hair.
I met Arevik in the teacher’s lounge of the second basic school in a little town in the Armenian desert, where I teach English and she teaches art. We’re close in age, and both curious, and she is patient with my still developing language. She likes the idea of speaking English, she told me over a cup of coffee on a 15-minute break between classes. She thumbed through her sketchbook while she sipped, showing me her portraits.
“I always liked the idea of learning art,” I told her, echoing the sentiment.
She smiled, bright. “We will have to teach each other.”
Now, in her childhood home, our footsteps echo through the empty house—squeak of my running shoes and click of her heels.
Arevik fumbles for a light switch, and the room floods gold and blue and green.
“My work,” she gestures to the stained glass lampshade, spins it so the colors dance. Red catches on her face.
“It’s beautiful,” I say in English.
She knows beautiful— pink lips, flapper bob, shy smile. Arevik might be the most beautiful person I’ve ever met. Even her name translates as the diminutive of the Armenian word for sun, arev.
She pulls me into the next room, to a mirror ringed in a grape vine mosaic she forged.
“It’s my brother’s home now,” she explains. “But I grew up here.”
“Why is your art here, not at your home?” I ask.
She shrugs. “My husband’s house is smaller,” she frowns. “But it is mine and I love it,” she adds quickly.
Moving past me, Arevik opens the door to another room, leading me to an oil painting of dancers in jewel colors hanging above the couch.
I marvel, and she asks me shyly if I like it. I do. She launches into quick Armenian explaining the painting techniques she used with words I don’t recognize.
“Are you understanding?” She asks, pausing.
“Only some,” I confess.
She nods, a little sad. “That’s okay.”
I’m a little sad too; there are questions I would like to ask and things I want to understand that we don’t share words for.
“What are you working on now?” I ask her as we walk back down the hall. We pause at the mirror, looking at the mosaic and our own reflections. She’s tall and thin and has thick dark hair. My own blonde hair is falling out of its bun. In the dim light and the mosaic mirror we could be a painting too— two young women, maybe not so dissimilar. You could pretend we’re from the same place, speak the same language. Arevik leans forward and traces the thick vines in her mosaic.
“I’m not working on anything now,” she speaks quietly, like the people at the party we had left might still hear.
“Vorovhetev… Because I need to work in the school, and I have my son and husband to take care of. I want to. I wish I could.”
“But you can’t do both?” I ask, prying.
“It’s different for you,” she says. “America must be different.”
I don’t have the language, or cultural competency to know how to ask if this makes her sad, or if she wishes things were different for her, or what it is she wants for herself; I don’t even know if it’s okay to ask, but I want to. Is there a different version of your life, one with all of that beautiful art still in it, that you wanted?
“Yes kartsoom em yes chem haskanoom,” I say. I guess I don’t understand.
A smile just barely pulls at her lips then fails and now she looks sad for real, the massive gap in understanding laid bare before us, more than a failing of language.
“Doo khaskanas yreb amoosnanas,” she tells me. You will understand when you’re married.
I nod, and think I understand something but I’m not quite sure what—either that our lives and the way we see them look wildly different and that’s okay, or that Arevik has given up something huge and she shouldn’t have had to. Or maybe just that this, this stained glass lit room, and the oil painted dancers, and the women in the grapevine bound mirror, all of this art deserves to be appreciated by someone, and I’m glad I was there to see it, to tell her it is beautiful.
I don’t say any of that. Because I can’t, because I shouldn’t, because it’s not a conversation I know how to have in any languages.
Instead I say, “You are so talented, a real artist.”
She beams, and I think that maybe there was something bigger understood.
We examine the artifacts of her childhood until I run out of words in her native language, and we’re left in a house of art that her footsteps echo through. We go back to the party, and I thank her for showing me. I return to playing games with the kids, and she to picking up dishes and making coffee in a house that is not hers.