A Girl Named Charlie

A Birthday fantasy in two parts

(Translated by Sofiya Turin)

Part One

Oh what a funny girl!” Said a woman’s voice.

That’s how it goes. They take me out to see the light of day and then laugh at me right away

“This is the first time that I see a newborn make such a funny face!”

Do you like it? Well here’s another one for you! They are laughing again suddenly I got hurt, opened my mouth and began to wail

Oh wow! What bass she has!”

You have a large girl,” the doctors said to my mother, glancing at the scale. “More than 4 kilograms. She is the only one like that.”

Actually, it isn’t a fact that everything went exactly the way I am telling it. I wrote this from my mother’s words and she loves to imagine things and believes in her own fantasies.

My father also likes to imagine things. For as long as I can remember, he has been voicing one of his ideas – that I am the next incarnation of Charlie Chaplin on this earth and that since my birth, I have been making funny faces and proving that his hypothesis is indeed legitimate. While left alone in my stroller outside a store, I was able to find my audience almost immediately. Running out in one minute with a loaf of bread or a bottle of milk, my mother would find my stroller surrounded by laughing passerbies.

Oh what funny faces your little girl is showing us!” They would tell her.

But the most important evidence for my father was that I was born almost on the exact same day that the great comic passed away. More proof that he reincarnated in me.


When I was a teenager and watched Chaplin films, I sometimes imagined that I was witnessing my past life. It wasn’t so easy to imagine. How could this strange little person with a dancing gait be me? Or me, him? One time I put on my mother’s hat, picked up my grandmother’s walking stick and tried to walk across the room, imitating Chaplin. It definitely wasn’t me. Although, for as long as I can remember myself, I have always loved to put on a show in front of the mirror and pretend that I was someone else. Sometimes, I appeared to myself to be very beautiful. I was sure of it. Always. When I threw a tantrum at someone’s house at the age of two, and the owner of the house said, “Oh, how ugly Nadya looks when she screams,” she silenced me immediately. My father says that the flow of tears stopped at once and I said, “I am beautiful. You are the one who is ugly.” I then opened the door that led to the stairwell and walked out of the house.

It goes without saying, that I don’t remember myself at the age of two. But I remember that at the age of five, I was already drawn to the stage. Of course, all girls are drawn to the stage, but I was drawn to it in an unusual way: I wasn’t eager to hear “bravo” or the sounds of applause. I wanted to hear laughter. When people asked me who I wanted to be, I answered, “A clown.”

I didn’t decide to join the Theatrical Academy until I was 23 years old. During final exams, I ended up in the hospital. Soon after, I made my second attempt at getting into the actor’s division and participated in the selection process for clown-mime theater “Litsedei”. But that didn’t work out either. On the second tour I performed a strange pantomime that evoked bewilderment in the judges, rather than laughter. I did not make it to the third tour. But to this day, I grow red when I remember the clown's faces, and the reaction of disbelief that I received for my handling of macaroni with ketchup, that I believe I dumped on my head.

Upon exiting through the door, I dumped the entire edible item into the trashcan and that same night, I met my future husband. Family life and the birth of children distracted me from my dream of becoming an actress and I began working in journalism instead. However, at the age of 33, when the kids had grown older, I was once again bombarded by an overwhelming desire to study theater. I will go, I decided, knowing that I would not be accepted anyway.

Why aren’t you studying to be a director?” I was asked by surprised examiners who were hinting directly at my age after they had finished listening to my story, poem and song titled “I drank too much, I am drunk.” I sang with a swollen throat, trying to prevail over the pain. Strep throat made the song a lot louder and more colloquial sounding.

You know, it is not my goal to be admitted into the program,” I confessed. “It’s just that at age 23, I was not able to take the final exams due to illness and I would like for this day to actually take place in my life.”

Where are you from?”

I live three houses away on the opposite side of Mohovoi Street,” I admitted while grimacing, not wanting to disappoint the fair judges. The move into this house was supposed to take place in about two months. It was about a twelve minute walk to my house on Saperniy Avenue.

The judges exhaled.

I walked down Mohovaya Street, breathing in the hot July air through my sick throat, thinking that maybe this was one of my roads, which I happened to be too late for. I believed that I would surely find another road – maybe an even better one. I hadn’t become an actress. Maybe I would become a writer instead. 

I started with a blank page. Meaning, a couple of months later, I opened up a blank page in Word and typed the name of my future novel, “Born - Against All Odds.” I wrote the first chapter. The finished chapter lay around for a year and a half, until my muse flew in and made it possible for me to finish the book. When it was finished, I had already made up a title for the second one. 

 

Now that both books are completed, I understand that everything in my life happened exactly how it was meant to happen. You see, it is my own personal story that inspired me to write. There were highs and lows, rises and falls. My personal life bubbled and smoldered like molten lava and there were times that I didn’t want to live, but I always quickly pulled myself out of depression, like Münchhausen – grasping on to my very own braid. I never allowed myself to feel pity for myself. In my heart of hearts, I was always a clown and I sought to find the humor in every situation. Without this essence, I would not have become who I am today. I often think that I would not be able to live without laughter. I have often done things that have made people judge me or consider me crazy. This has never really bothered me. We live in a crazy world and if it turns out that we have a lot in common with the world in which we live, then why should we be embarrassed?

I am happy that I have finally met a person who accepts me with all of my demons and my powerful draw to change. Monotony has always bored me, making me crave change: to get divorced, to move away somewhere, or to do both simultaneously. I sometimes felt like I was running from myself and it is only in the last year, when fate has made it possible for us to start a new life in America, that I finally feel that I don’t want to move anywhere. The most important thing is that I have near me, my husband and my kids, who love me just the way I am – sometimes joyful and playful and other times – angry and ready to kick some butt.

It is possible that I can quietly call myself a writer-widely known in narrow circles. My desire to make people laugh is externalized on the page. When I know that people read my books and smile, I feel like I am not living in vain. “Good style,” they say. “I read it in one breath.” But from time to time, I.. no-no..yes, I think that I could have become a pretty good comedic actress. 

Outside the window lies the end of December 2014, our second California Christmas. I just turned 37 years old. For the poets Pushkin and Mayakovsky this was the end. But I only write prose and have nothing to fear. 




Part 2

When I turned 37, I suddenly experienced the desire to hang myself. I remember that day well – April 16, 1926, my birthday. I sat in my green room, removed my mustache and then started to wash off my makeup. After washing off half of my face, I suddenly saw an old person, who no one cared about and who in all honesty probably never loved anyone, staring back at me in the mirror. I wondered if any woman, other than my poor mother who I had to send to the mental asylum, ever really loved me. Everyone was only after my money.


It is rare for someone of my age to be able to brag about all that I have achieved. I was a world renowned comedic actor and director who lived in my own home consisting of 40 rooms, a movie theater and an organ, in Beverly Hills, California. But I was not happy. I learned that making movies, which I considered to be my life, turned into an ordinary rat race that was terribly taxing and exhausting and left me depleted and empty in the soul. My muse had abandoned me without an explanation. She treated me the way that I had always treated women. I just left. Well, one time I tried to explain my actions to my third wife:

I want to start my life anew. To become a completely different person.”

What is the problem, Charlie?” she shrugged her shoulders in a hurt manner. “Be born a woman in another country and under no circumstances, star in movies.”

I don’t believe in reincarnation. Actually, I don’t believe in anything-not in God or the devil.”

I left again.

How wonderful it is that at 37, I subjugated the desire to climb into the noose. If I would have done that, I would never have had the chance to experience the joy that would fall upon me later on. Oona. My only love. Who would have ever imagined that I would meet her after 50 and that she, such a young woman, would fall in love with me without any reservations. Before that, I had no idea how much happiness lay in having a family. I thought that I was not cut out for family life. I quickly grew bored of women. They all seemed dull and monotonous to me. 


I was absolutely overjoyed when I met Oona, and another eight times when she gave birth to my children. The last time this happened was when I was already past 70 years old. Our eldest daughter, Geraldine, became a wonderful actress. When I was no longer alive, she starred in an autobiographical film about me and played her grandmother, Hannah. If I had lived just a little bit longer, I would have had the chance to see my daughter in a very bright episode of my childhood – me at five years old and on the stage for the first time. On that day, my mother had lost her voice and could not sing. I had been observing her performance from behind the curtain, and decided to go out and fill in for her. They clapped so enthusiastically for me! Coins from every direction were flying unto the stage. That’s when I truly understood that I wanted to be an actor. 

At 9 years old, I began dancing with a troupe and at 14, I began playing small roles in the theater where I was noticed and invited to act in the movies, which were still silent at that time. When I started making movies, I was 23 years old. That’s when my “Tramp” was born. This happened imperceptibly. I was walking to my dressing room and suddenly decided to put on wide pants that fit me like a sack, huge oversized shoes and a derby hat. In my hand, I held a cane. I wanted everything in my costume to be contradictory. I also glued on a small mustache that was meant to make me appear older, but not conceal my facial expressions. Getting dressed, I did not think about what kind of character I would be concealing behind this appearance, but as soon as I was ready, the costume and makeup showed me the image. I felt it and when I returned to the pavilion, my persona was born. He was multi-faceted-a vagabond, a gentleman, a poet, a dreamer. In general, it was one entity, dreaming about beautiful love and adventure. He wants for the audience to believe that he is a scholar or a musician or a duke or a polo player. And at the same time, he is ready to pick up a cigarette butt from the sidewalk or take a candy away from a child, and under the right circumstances, he can give a lady a kick in the ass-but only if he’s under the influence of great rage. 

 

And this is how I lived two different lives instead of just one. The first life – I dedicated to my career, the second one – to my family. There was only one pain left – America. In America is where I found my greatest success. I loved this country. This is where the character of the tramp was born; in which people sometimes do not even see me. And America gave me, the tramp, a good kick in the butt. Leaving America to go to London for the premier of my film, I was not able to return.

My faithful wife gave up her U.S. citizenship, and together we settled in Switzerland. I realized that voiced film, that was gaining popularity, was not for me. I tried to make movies, but everything was off. I then understood that my mission was complete and decided to devote my senior years to family and memoirs. And when I began to write, I learned that life seems tragic only when looked upon from a very close distance. We think too much and don’t feel enough. In this world nothing is permanent, especially hardship. To write about my life, I was forced to look at it from the outside and then I was able to begin to enjoy it. 


Having read “My Autobiography,” many readers thought that I was in no way less of a writer than I was an actor. Good style. Who would’ve imagined it! If it weren’t for movies, I might have become a writer. But, I only wrote one book. All of my writing talent went into writing letters to friends. You see, at that time we could only communicate in this way. 

 

One Christmas Eve, when Geraldine was absent at the family table because she was dancing in Paris, I decided to write her a letter. I didn’t know that one day it would be published on some kind of ….internet. I didn’t have a chance to learn about this. In the letter, I wanted to give my daughter parting words for her entire life, seeing that I was already 76 years old. The letter turned out to be a long one. I began to understand that she and I were very different. She, a girl dreaming about the stage. And I, an old rotten tree stump whose whole life was behind him. I ended my parting words like this:

"I know that fathers and children are in an eternal fight. Fight with me, with my thoughts, my girl! I do not like obedient children. And while from my eyes no tears are running as I am writing this, I want to believe that today's Christmas night will be the night of miracles. I wish a miracle to happen and you really understand everything that I wanted to tell you.

Charlie is older already, Geraldine! Sooner or later, instead of white silk on the scene, you will have to wear black to come to my grave. Now I do not want to upset you. Only from time to time look into the mirror, there you will see my features. Even when the blood in my veins is cool, I don't want you to forget your father – Charlie. I'm not an angel, but always aspired to be a man. You try it too".

A few years later there was a call from America. The callers asked my wife about my health and whether Charles Spenser Chaplin would like to come and accept the 1972 Oscar for his services to the cinematic arts.

I will ask him right now,” She answered.

The caller repeated his question to me this time.

Tell them that I will come, of course,”

For a long time I was angry at myself for getting teary-eyed while reciting my acceptance speech with an Oscar in hand.

I believed that a clown should not cry. But when they started to show scenes from my movies on the screen behind me and the audience stood up, I could not contain myself. This was not right. A clown should not be seen crying. His lot is laughter. If you didn’t laugh today, then you have wasted a day. Only clowns are truly happy, and I am one of them. Only a crazy person can survive in this insane world. Never be embarrassed of yourself. And I shouldn’t have been embarrassed of my tears.

I didn’t wake up on Christmas, December 25, 1977. On that night I had an intriguing dream. I was a knight with armor and a sword and I fought against a tramp. I was a decrepit 88 year old, and he – the way saw him for the first time – then, in the dressing room, wearing ridiculously baggypants. A young, mustache-less, talented comic who had his whole life ahead of him. Suddenly he smiled at me slyly, dropped his weapon-the cane-and began to run. He didn’t really run, but walked with his funny movie gait. I really wanted to catch up with him and talk to him. It is so unusual to talk to yourself-the way you were many years ago – to tell, warn, ask…I was actually chasing my youth, for the chance to live life anew. Suddenly, we ended up in some sort of dark tunnel and I lost the vagabond.

Hey, where are you?” I yelled out, but no one answered me.

The tunnel was long and far ahead a strip of light was visible. I slowly walked to the light and it grew brighter and brighter. I had already forgotten why I was walking that way and just thought: How interesting, I wonder what lies ahead. What if there really is a God? And a devil? And they are sitting there right now drinking tea and waiting for the old man Chaplin to come to them. They will probably judge me. I wonder what part of my life they will review. If it is the first part-then I will certainly end up in hell. Maybe they will pay more attention to the second part?

The light got closer and closer and I began to hear some sort of voices. Hands? How did hands get here? Where are you pulling me? I can walk on my own. Two big hands grabbed me by the head and carefully pulled me to the light.

Oh what a funny girl!” Said a woman’s voice.