In our Russian culture textbooks this is the night when everyone pours into the forest and stays out till dawn jumping over bonfires and searching for magical fern blossoms. The girls are supposed to put messy wreaths of flowers on their heads and dance like sprites in loose peasant dresses, then find some body of water and set their wreaths drifting off with their wishes. It’s called Ivan-Kupala, all of this, which means John the Baptist, according to Amy. What John the Baptist has to do with ferns or fires, nobody knows.
Yet when we come out of the metro and onto the street, nobody else in the crowd heads toward the forest. Most people trudge the other way, toward the blocks of identical high-rise apartments, their arms thick pendulums swinging their loaded bags. It’s ten o’clock but still light out. The days here stretch long, like fantasies.
Vadim’s in the lead of our group and says to hurry up. The two bottles of vodka in his string bag clink together as he lights his cigarette. He knows the way. Sasha has pickles and a bottle of moonshine. The tall, silent guy with the broken-apart face has a soccer ball and some black bread. Andrei, who keeps bumping into me, has a bag full of shashlik meat that’s been unrefrigerated since morning. What I’ve got is a bottle of orange Fanta and the bedspread I stole from my dorm room, which has bedbugs.
From the station to the woods it’s a long walk past shuttered kiosks on a crumbling road to a big park that has a few festering ponds in front. Rising on a hill beyond them is a sparse, dusty forest—dark wood, not birch. There’s a half-built castle in there somewhere, an abandoned palace called Tsaritsyno. Or so they tell us.
“This place used to be called Black Mud,” Amy says. She did a field trip here on her last study abroad.
“No,” says Andrei with great certainty. But then, “Is that true?”
“Didn’t John the Baptist get his head, you know, taken away?” I ask in my cockeyed Russian, but nobody knows. The Americans shrug; the Russians look at me like I’m a religious zealot. Andrei leans in and whispers a question about swimming, about water. “What?”
He tries again, breaking it down for me: “Did a priest, so to speak, put you in the water and say a prayer over you?”
Was I baptized. “Oh. Yes. But I was a . . . kid,” I say, groping for the word baby, until I remember they don’t really have a word for baby. Or for thumbs. I rock an invisible small thing in my arms to illustrate.
He makes that thrilled grin they produce when they learn something exotic about us. We do it to them too.
There are eleven of us—five American girls, six Russian guys, all of us college students in Moscow from elsewhere. The Russians are Soviets, actually, from places like Tbilisi and Minsk and Dushanbe. By the end of the year the word Soviet will be obsolete in the present tense, and their homes will become separate countries. For now it’s still July 1991, still perestroika. Still empty stores and lines around the block and murals shouting WE’RE BUILDING COMMUNISM!
“Is this holiday about the . . . most long day?” Jane says, then asks Amy how to say solstice. Solntsestoyanie, it turns out. I repeat the word in whispers but an hour from now it’ll be gone.
Andrei and Vadim make some kind of joke that even Amy only half understands. She confers with them, then translates for us: “They said mostly the holiday has to do with sex, with mating.”
“They used the word mating?” I say. “How do you say mating?”
Jane, my sweet, sheltered roommate, draws herself inward. Sarah and Eileen cluster away from the guys, bouncing between them a look that says, Why did we agree to this?
I just keep walking. The next time Andrei brushes against me, I jog ahead and start kicking the soccer ball forward with the tall, silent, harmless boy whose name is either Edik or Erik or Adik—none of which ever appeared in my Russian books.
The air gets darker deep in the woods, but twilight hangs with us past midnight, until an almost-full moon steps in. I don’t see any castle. There are no sprites in the woods, no other revelers, no flowers or glowing ferns. Just the mosquitoes, making noises like portable fans. The boys drop their things and go off to collect firewood, and we, accustomed to their gender divisions, just spread out my bedspread on the hard-packed dirt and wait. We’ve even worn skirts.
“Why don’t they ever have grass anywhere?” Eileen switches to English while they’re away.
“Cement and dirt and weeds.” Sarah knocks on the ground. “No wonder there’s no food. It’s the most anemic looking soil on the planet.”
“Radioactive,” Eileen says, which is their running joke. Amy shushes them, because the Soviets understand this word, and don’t find it funny at all.
We’re not quite so idiotic at home. Sarah and Eileen go to Yale. We’ve turned into idiots here, with our broken tongues and perpetual frustration.
I shoo some bugs away from the bag of meat Andrei left on the ground. The guys come roaring back full of purpose and dispute fire-building strategies until at last the flames rise steadily and we can start up with the drinking. They’ve brought glasses for everyone. They drink only shots and only all at once, in a circle, after a toast. We know this by now. To drink between toasts, or not drink at all, is nil’zya. Round one is To Ivan-Kupala! Then, To us! and To love! and To those who couldn’t be here! The toasts get longer and sloppier: To the forces of fate that brought our parents together to make us, and the fortune that brought us all together right here! Eventually we run out of things to toast and resort to To international friendship!—which we all shout out sarcastically, because it’s painted in big red letters across the lobby of our dorm.
After a while we get hungry enough to swallow the suspect shashlik. We even dig our fingers into a can of oily fish, and then some of the girls go off behind trees to puke. Some pass out; some disappear in pairs; the rest of us wander through the woods and find some ruined fortress walls growing out of the dirt. “It’s really true,” I can’t help shouting, and Andrei, whose broad-shouldered handsomeness suddenly occurs to me, says, “You were doubting?”
It seemed like fairy tale stuff—the magic ferns, the wishes, somebody commissioning a whole palace way out here in the middle of nowhere. And then looking it over and saying, “Nah, tear it down. Rebuild it. No, that’s not right either; let’s just abandon it all and go live somewhere else.” When I scramble up onto a broken wall Andrei and Vadim go wide-eyed for a second, like I’ve just climbed onto a crucifix. But then they glance around giddily and decide to join me, and Amy and Jane and the quiet boy follow along. His face is like two different faces sewn together down the middle. “So it was Catherine the Great that was build this?” I say, and Andrei says, “No, I think she’s the one who tore it down.” Someone else says, “I thought her crazy son did something.” The guys look to Amy for verification, but even she can’t remember the truth anymore.
Somewhere around 3:00 or 4:00 A.M. we put together a soccer game inside the walls, and it’s bright enough to see the ball just fine. We find no glowing ferns, no flowers, and our bonfire dies out before anyone remembers to jump over it. By dawn when we trudge back toward the metro, Andrei’s got my hand locked up inside his, and he plants a kiss on me but it’s just wet smoke. “Now you’re really here,” he announces. It feels like the sun never went down, but it must have, at least for a while.
They make the Soviets live in cockroach-infested dorms an hour from the city center, but we get to stay in a brand-new building near the Park Kultury metro station, which is actually all the way across the river from the Park of Culture and Rest Named After Gorky. For some reason we never go over there, though sometimes we walk to the dead end behind our bread store and look across the river at it: ferris wheels, paddle boats, ducks, roller skaters. Tourist stuff, we say. What we do instead is sit in sweltering classrooms bungling verb conjugations. Sometimes we sing songs, children’s songs. A lone cat prowls the halls. They show us cartoons.
In our dorm rooms, the radios fixed to the walls above our beds have no on or off switch and no way to change the station—just one bald volume knob that doesn’t go down to mute. So we’re subjected at all hours to whispers from state radio and the brash static when the signal falters, and the mind-bending ding dong dong whenever they want our dim-witted attention. It’s hard not to feel we’re being watched, being fed propaganda while we sleep. We submit to this, to the paranoiac inefficiencies of Soviet life. On a little three-month visit, we can afford to go along, be bemused.
The cafeteria in the lobby smells of fish and boiled fat, and is closed half the time anyway. When there’s breakfast it’s tea and something like oatmeal with chunks of pink meat mixed in. Some days they are open but have nothing to sell; other days it’s alien concoctions like aspik and kompot. Like most of the people we’ve met in Moscow, our clothes are drooping and we sleep with our arms cinched around our middles. Like good Communists, we’ve congealed as a group and refer to ourselves in the plural, always we.
Then one morning in August our group leader, Mary, calls us into her room to say we won’t be going to class. She’s American, a dispirited grad student with compromised hair, who insists on speaking only in Russian to us. But something has happened, is happening, something so grave that she puts the big words in English. Gorbachev is incapacitated, or on the losing side of somebody’s grab for power. He was scheduled to sign a treaty today that would give more autonomy to each republic, but—here she hesitates and throws in some qualifiers—it seems that maybe some hard-line Communists bent on preserving the old Soviet dominance have decided to depose him before he could sign the treaty. We’re in the heart of the biggest country in the world, with its eleven time zones and fifteen republics, its thirty thousand nuclear warheads. And for today at least, nobody knows who’s in charge.
Beyond Mary’s window our quiet side street goes about its business as usual. In slow motion, a grandmother navigates around a vast puddle, clutching a little girl with one hand and a wheeled shopping bag with the other. One boy chases another down the sidewalk. Near the corner, some workers are tamping down hot asphalt with their shovels, which as usual don’t seem like quite the right tools for the job.
We’re told to go back to our rooms. As foreigners we’re special, Mary says, then swaps the word out for vulnerable. If she scares us, we’ll be easier to watch. She throws in her usual threats to remind us: We can be sent home, we can be failed, we can be picked up by police, or worse.
In the hallway we find Jane just coming in from a jog. She says she saw tanks lined up along Leninskii Prospekt. How many? She shakes her head, lots. A long silence shudders through us.
“Maybe they’ll send us home early,” Eileen says. She has a boyfriend at home, which has become our collective misfortune.
We go down to the lobby, where there’s a shoddy TV, but the only thing coming out of it is Swan Lake. Like every other day, there are guards at our door. If our parents could call us we could tell them how very secure we are. How insulated we’ll always be from this city, no matter how many burdensome words we learn.
It starts to drizzle outside but we keep our windows open anyway, listening for booms, sirens, signs of change. We think of our friends and teachers and their families, even the guys who sell things by the metro, even the awful woman at the bread store who berates us when we mispronounce things. Like asylum inmates, we lean in to our radios, getting nothing but static and, occasionally, Beethoven. Some of us try to write home, do our homework; some wash clothes in the sink, do situps, clip nails. We wait; we are useless. One of the guys digs out granola bars he brought from home; someone else has M&Ms.
We share alike.
Then a French girl from the floor below us comes into our room with wet hair and says we’ve got visitors. She goes over and leans out our window, waving her arm.
It’s Andrei down there, in the courtyard with the tall, skinny boy and his face, his matted black hair. They’re huddled together under a big red flowered umbrella. “Privet!” Andrei calls, waving like he’s on a ship. He shouts something along the lines of “Let’s go see history.”
“They locked us under,” Jane calls down.
“So what?” Andrei says. “Come out the back way.” Jane slowly focuses her big black camera and takes a picture of him.
“The guards,” I say.
“I’ll work it out,” he says, which I guess means he’ll pay them off. Andrei, we’ve discovered, is a fartsovshik, a black marketeer, which is why he dresses in American clothes and almost always has money and usually gets what he wants.
Most everyone has filtered into our room. “You guys up for it?” I say to the others, but they just glance at the floor and the walls. Even the French girl says, “No way.” With their expensive educations and sculpted resumes, they have real things to lose. I don’t blame them. But I’m just a C+ state school kid whose future will be shaped by student loan payments and the vast, jobless Midwest. I might never in my life do anything more than this.
Jane’s voice gets very low and anxious. She lost her mother last year but I’m the only one here who knows this. “This is a stupid, stupid idea. You think bad things can’t happen to you.”
“Bring something to drink,” Andrei calls. “I’m really thirsty.”
Andrei takes my coming downstairs alone as a sign of my commitment to him. When he commandeers my bag and arm I bristle, but there’s a bright fear glowing in me so I go ahead and let him take ownership. The skinny boy, Edik, maintains his radio silence as we walk, glancing up only to make sure he doesn’t lose track of us. On the Ring Road ahead of us, a lone tank trudges past, as if lost.
Andrei and Edik disagree about where to go. Edik heard people were demonstrating at Manezh Square. Andrei says we should go to Krasnopresnenskaya, head to the parliament building, which everyone calls, with some irony, the White House. For a second they look at me, as if I could possibly know anything. I see two women heading into the metro station with a tricolor Russian flag, not the Soviet hammer and sickle, collapsed between them. So I say, “Could be we follow them.”
At Krasnopresnenskaya Station the quick current of the crowd sweeps us past all the bronze bas reliefs of workers and revolutionaries raising flags and building barricades. The only people who seem to notice them anymore are tourists. Every station in town is a cathedral to the worker, the soldier, the revolutionary. Marble columns, vaulted ceilings, chandeliers, mosaics, stained glass. It’s a city clogged with monuments. I hold on to Andrei’s hand and let myself be pushed and funneled onto the steep, narrow, ultrafast escalator that carries us several stories up from underground. I once heard a rumor about a second, secret metro system that supposedly runs below this one, designed to evacuate the most important people in the event of—here Russians stop the story, because what they were about to say would be impolite—in the event that your country annihilates us with those weapons.
When you’re jammed into a thick crowd and you can’t feel your feet, it’s best to look up, at the chandeliers, and think about the people who built this. It’s best not to think about where we’re going, or what kind of clashes or crackdowns await us. Andrei twists around to face me on the long ride up. He says, “Don’t worry,” which is actually, “Don’t uncalm yourself.” His hand in mine is cool and loose, his posture against the rubber railing as leisurely as a honeymooner’s. I turn to see Edik behind me, and he’s shaking.
Up at ground level everything’s gray and raining, and the crowd clots up again in the confusion of popping umbrellas. Then they wander off in various directions on their separate errands. It turns out there was no surging collective purpose. Most of them don’t even stop to consider the line of tanks that’s creeping down the street.
“They’re all over town,” Andrei says, collecting himself after an odd silence. “It’s really true.”
In Baku last year, Soviet tanks rolled in and killed hundreds of demonstrators. In January, they killed over a dozen in Vilnius. In ’56, as even a mediocre Russian major knows, they took out thousands in Hungary. I think about how I promised my mom I’d be careful. But here I am, unaccounted for, moving toward the parliament building with a growing cluster of strangers. They say Yeltsin’s been making speeches to the crowds, calling for a general strike. Edik says, “God, they’ll kill him.” An old guy near us says, “They haven’t even arrested him.”
We’re quiet for a while, until Andrei says, “I guess somebody cut a deal with someone.”
Closer to the White House and the river embankment beyond it, people are dragging junk along the street—metal street signs and construction rebar, garbage and bricks from God knows where. Three teenagers scrape a whole phone booth along the pavement, which incites a roar of approval. The pay phones more often than not don’t work anyway. When the boys pause to rest, so many people step in to help them that they get squeezed aside and stand back, laughing as their phone booth moves off without them toward the makeshift barricades.
Across the river, a long, thick line of tanks and troop-filled trucks is inching along Kutuzovskii Prospekt toward us. The roar of them seems louder than it ought to, and the crowd stiffens and goes quiet. “We need more stuff!” a woman yells, and we reanimate: A chunk of people breaks off, looking for more debris. To me though, these flimsy piles of junk look mainly symbolic; even a decent Jeep could find a way around them.
The tanks along the perimeter of the White House sit like turtles, just waiting. The soldiers, poking out of the hatches to smoke, look oddly casual and tired. A cluster of old women gathers around, and one says, “You wouldn’t shoot your own grandmother, right?” The boy in the hatch has dimples and red hair and smiles back at her, shaking his head ever so faintly. “You hungry?” she says, and hands him a bag of bubliki. He takes it, a little too eagerly.
The crowds dwindle and swell with the rain, so it’s hard to say how many we are, or how many there might be in other parts of the city. On Tverskaya, they say, and at Manezh Square, they’ve overturned trolleybusses for barricades. Some people somewhere, we hear but don’t see, have set up tents and campfires, hunkering down for the long haul. Pedestrians on errands make brief detours to see us. They linger at the edges like shy kids near a playground. Some stay, some go. This can’t hold.
Then across the crowd I see a woman with her arm up like a Lenin statue. She’s waving, which is fine, but at me. When I make out her face it’s Anna Petrovna, one of my Russian teachers, she of the stifling hot classroom and Cheburashka cartoons. For a second I realize this may mean I’m in trouble, but the grin on her face says otherwise. She winds her way through the crowd to me. “Isn’t this strange,” she says. “Fantastika.” She’s pale, maybe forty, with intensely bleached hair and the unrestrained smile—so rare here—of a gold medalist. All our teachers have been distant and formal, but something about running into me here has changed that.
“I’m so glad you’re here for this. Where are the others? Take my picture. Take pictures of all of this.” As usual though, I forgot my camera. She clutches my arm and from then on we’re attached.
Andrei’s getting restless. He says, “Let’s go get something to drink, why don’t we?” We’re soaked and chilled but Edik and I hold still. Anna Petrovna dismisses Andrei with a look.
He sighs. “This is just people standing around. Whatever’s going on, the real stuff, is going to happen in some back room. A handful of big guys are trading offers right now. This out here means nothing.”
An old man near us says a brash three-syllable word to him that I’ve never heard before.
“I don’t care,” I say. This out here is all we have. It’s beyond curiosity, beyond being barricades or witnesses. Here in this place the abstract idea of collective power is finally palpable. If we go home, and can’t even see this on TV, we’ll never feel it again.”
“I don’t think you want to be out here after dark.” Andrei gestures toward the tanks. “In the dark they can do whatever they want to you.” For a second, a romantic thought flushes through me: If things should go violent, if I should be a victim, would that make the U.S., the West, pay more attention to this? Could I finally, for once in my life, become significant?
A reporter with an Australian accent approaches some men near us for an interview.
“Don’t get your picture taken,” Andrei says. “Don’t talk to anyone you don’t know.”
“OK,” I say. So it’s just me and Edik and Anna Petrovna, and a swell of maybe ten thousand people, from a city of over nine million. As Andrei walks away he pauses to light a girl’s cigarette, and he listens for a moment to whatever she’s saying to him in her beautiful language.
The apartment is small, one long, good-sized room. Small kitchen, tiny bathroom, no bedroom. The couch in the main room opens up, and at the far end a single bed is pushed against the wall and covered like a sofa. Anna and Edik help me carry my bags inside.
We open the windows to air the place out and pull open the door to the balcony, which is completely filled with crates of empty bottles and jars.
It’s the last day of August and already getting chilly. Anna shows me how to light the stove and boils some water for tea. All the utensils, pots, and pans are here. A bowl of salt and a small jar of sugar. There’s even a short little fridge and a telephone.
Edik goes in the bathroom and calls, “Hot water!”
The place is furnished right down to the cluttered contents of the drawers; it belonged to Edik’s friend’s grandfather, who died last spring. It’s forty dollars a month, as long as I don’t call attention to myself. No one knows, right now, who really owns the place, or how long it’ll take the government to realize that Viktor Sergeevich has died and freed up this little pocket of the state’s vast real estate holdings. At this point nobody even knows who the state is. In the meantime, I’m not to talk to the neighbors, not to make noise, not to look like a foreigner—at least not like an American. I’m OK with that. I’m ready for total immersion.
My Russian has improved, but still when I’m tired I get very quiet, which is what I’m doing at the kitchen table while we drink our tea. Anna Petrovna reaches across and clasps my hand like a grandmother. “You’ve lost your group,” she says. “This is a sad day.”
We all moved out of the dorm this morning, but the rest of the group took a bus to the airport and I, like a fool maybe, said good-bye and came here. It’s been a week and a half since the coup, which lasted only three days, took only three lives. Hardly any violence, for the fall of the evil empire. It’s made the world wonder if all our grand fears were invented.
On the phone with my parents last week I tried to explain the job I’d found: translating articles for a new independent news agency. A decent apartment for next to nothing, a front seat to whatever was going to happen here. What was my last year of college compared to this?
“You’re not going to turn Commie, are you?” my dad asked, in a voice half joking, half sour. I could hear the TV behind him, the jingle of a local furniture store. “I give her till Christmas,” he said to my mom as he handed off the phone. They’ve always had a habit of letting me drift far, letting me out of their sight.
My mom was quiet for a long time. “It sounds as if you’ve thought it all out,” she said very carefully. Since I left for college, she’s taken to watching her grammar when she talks to me. “I don’t want to get in your way,” she said slowly, and something in me collapsed. I was sitting in a greasy booth in the main post office on Tverskaya, having waited in line three hours for an international phone connection. I traced my finger through the germs on the plexiglas, glancing around the room, where all sorts of desperate-looking displaced people were calling abroad, dying to get there. “You have enough money?” my dad interjected from a phone in the other room. I screwed up the courage to say, “I love you,” but my mom just said, “What?” and then our time ran out.
“This is a very green area,” Anna Petrovna says. She lives nearby. “Many want to live here. Look at the trees.” The building is set back from a busy street, Profsoyuznaya, by half a block of asphalt and pipes and dumpsters. Down in the dirt yard out front, someone has built a homemade contraption for lifting weights. But there are clusters of tall trees all around, and from the fifth floor, if you only look out and not down, you see mostly foliage, and it glows. I try to ask them how to say treehouse, but the more I explain the more alarmed they look at the idea of kids living in trees.
“So what happened here, to your face?” Anna Petrovna asks Edik in the sweetest voice, pure curiosity.
He crinkles up his asymmetrical eyes. “Just a little accident, as a kid.” His voice is scuffed up at the edges.
Skeptical, she watches him, but decides to let it go. “I have to go now,” she says, kissing us on the cheeks. “But I’ll come back tomorrow and show you the neighborhood.”
Edik and I go in the other room and flop onto the couch, watching in silence as the afternoon sun moves across the room in trapezoids. It lights up the polished dining table, the small white bust of Lenin on the shelf, the dead little TV, the yellowing plastic radio perched on top of it. The dead man’s slippers are lined up by the door; his brush waits under the mirror. Before too long, when it gets colder, I’ll go ahead and use his bathrobe. I ask Edik how long it’s been since he went home to Tomsk for a visit. He says over a year. I ask about his family, but he just curves his lips into a false smile and shakes his head slightly. His eyes are deep brown and buggy, constant. His nose, clearly broken. His forehead is divided in two by a deep reddish scar that creeps down from his hairline. It picks up again in his pursed upper lip, and again on his throat, near the clavicle. He is a boy who takes you out of the loop of beauty, who makes beauty seem what it’s always been: arbitrary and cruel. Imagine a world without beautiful people. There’s something thrilling about it. I decide to run one thumb down the middle of his forehead, in that groove.
He rushes in like a middle-schooler to kiss me, as if the chance may never come again. But after a few seconds he pulls back and says, “You feel alone now? Is that the reason?”
It is and it isn’t, so I just pull him closer. When it comes to the more perplexing sentiments I’m handicapped by my meager vocabulary, still scared of botching every message. Like him, I’ve come to appreciate silence and gestures. His hip bones move against me and we’re both very thin these days so my hand slips easily up his shirt, down his pants, quick to remove the fabric that separates us.
The country no longer exists, but the city remains. A country is just an idea, its borders only visible in your mind and on maps. But the city is real, noisy and rank, covered in slush and transformed into one vast flea market. Every busy corner or underground crosswalk is jammed up with people selling whatever they can. Against the November cold they hold up blankets and coats, TVs and umbrellas—new products they were given instead of salaries, or old things they’ve decided they can live without. It’s the season of 300 percent inflation and disappearing pensions. The season of eighteen-hour-long nights. The season of Bush’s legs—huge American chicken legs processed and frozen in plastic, sold cheap from the U.S. as aid relief, because Americans prefer white meat. When Edik balks at their size I say, “We’ve got radioactive chickens,” and get a smile.
My American summer clothes are useless, so I’ve cobbled together an all-Russian wardrobe, which means uncomfortable pleather shoes and tight polyester sweaters in ghastly colors not found in nature. Short skirts, thick tights that bunch up at the ankles, and a broken-zippered coat that’s thin as a blanket. And even in this, people stare at me and know: I’m an imposter.
In the subway stations veterans, gypsies, and amputees have started planting themselves in the corridors to beg, clogging the already jammed traffic flow as people struggle not to step on them. Some reek of urine and alcohol; others have signs explaining their plight; others are cleanly dressed, with their uniforms on and their medals displayed on velvet pads as proof that they should not be penniless. The Russian word for them, bomzhi, comes from our word, bums. Like everyone else Edik walks past them with alarm and shame, and once they’re out of earshot he says to me, “I guess you’re used to this, but we never had this before.” They’ve all heard all about our hordes of homeless people.
Crime has arrived too, both petty and semiorganized. I still feel safer than in the U.S., but everyone here talks of pickpockets and street punks and mafiosos who demand payment from every kiosk owner or else burn the kiosks to the ground. They smolder along the sidewalks in the mornings.
What I do is throw parties. It’s the most unembarrassing way to feed people. I say, “Bring your friends, anybody you want,” and I load up the table and put on some music and they eat and fill the room with Russian words, and they teach me things like how not to piss off shop clerks. Tonight I’ve made grilled cheese sandwiches, deviled eggs, and fried potatoes. There are pickled vegetables, vodka and dollar-a-bottle champagne, vafli cookies and those awful little round bubliki. The custom here, at least right now, is not that the food goes together in any particular way, but that you fill the table, empty the cupboards, offer up everything you can find. I’m OK with that. I’m earning more money than I can manage to spend here. The stack of dollars on the top shelf of my armoire keeps growing as the ruble collapses and the supply lines for products seize up.
Tonight they’re asking about supply and demand, because I said something offhanded like, “The more rubles they print, the less they’ll be worth,” and a few of them looked at me like this was gibberish. Maybe I said it wrong.
“But a ruble’s a ruble,” says a girl at the end of the table.
She’s not an idiot, not completely naïve; she just hasn’t been taught, year in and year out, that greed is the only reliable rule on the planet. I hesitate. Do I want to be the person who teaches her that? But the lesson is already breaking out in the streets.
Edik changes the subject for me. “I read somewhere that in America you can tell what kind of person someone is by the type of car he drives.” Everyone laughs—it’s absurd—but then the relative truth of that rumor dawns on me. There are lots of things I can’t tell them about my country—things that embarrass me, things I don’t understand.
When the party’s over Edik sticks around and does what I’m told few Russian men do, the dishes. When I try to throw away some stale bread, he stops me and says that’s a sin. When everything’s cleaned up, we lean out the windows by the balcony so he can smoke, and I watch his lips kissing the black air, watch his bulbous Adam’s apple bobbing in his throat. “What’s the word for that, again?” I say, putting my fingers on it and feeling the hard ridges of his windpipe. I’ve taped vocabulary lists to the walls, and Edik just smiles and points at one of them. Kadyk.
To keep the cockroaches at bay I collect up the garbage and take it out to the stairwell, opening the creaking trash chute as quietly as possible. The walls are thin and I try to sneak around unnoticed.
But tonight I fail. My next-door neighbor unlatches his door with a fury and swings out. “You mustn’t throw those away!” he hisses.
I stare at the old man, terrified, holding my plastic bag like it’s a bomb.
“The bottles,” he says. “The bottles,” though I know the plastic bags are at least as valuable. He shuffles over and takes them.
Although I give money to almost all the beggars I pass, I haven’t yet given to him. This is because when I walk by him on the sidewalk—kneeling in his army uniform, with his rows of medals—he ducks his head or turns away, pretending not to see me, not to live next door to me. And I don’t want to steal this last illusion from him.
In the newsroom at the wire service I work the evening shift, and they pay me in dollars, not rubles. They hand us printouts of short articles, and we translate them into English as fast as possible, like machines. We learn all about the fighting in the Caucasus and the declarations of independence everywhere and the rise of new government officials in each former republic. When I meet up with terms I don’t know, which is often, I ask the guy next to me, who’s endlessly patient. Tall and thin, a Russian Mr. Rogers, he speaks English with such hard, curling, American R’s that everyone presumes he must have been a spy at some point. When we ask him, he just shrugs and says, “Well.”
Every hour or two we go out on the balcony for a smoke, where we gossip and look across the square at the huge lit-up statue of Mayakovsky, who looks as suave as a male model, with one hand pushing his suit coat back at the hip. Only Russians could make a poet look this powerful and sexy.
There’s such an excess of news to sell to the West that we can hardly keep up, so they bring on a new translator from Boston who just spent the past three months in Tbilisi, trying to scrap together a documentary about the civil war breaking out there. “It’s the most beautiful place in the world,” he says. “They have wine.” But when he and his crew broke their equipment and ran out of money, they came to Moscow to regroup. All kinds of makeshift explorers are touching down here; some call it the new Wild West—all resources, no laws. After work the new guy invites me to a party he’s going to. When you meet someone from your own country and they’re not an immediate asshole, you are friends.
I consider calling Edik to meet us, but the lure of speaking nothing but English for a whole night is too strong.
The apartment containing the party is a shock: no wallpaper, no gaudy lamps, no chintzy laminated entertainment center filled with china and lace. Just a plain off-white room with a futon and a stereo, some chairs. People move freely about, sip from their drinks whenever they want, no crazy toasts. No shots. It’s like going to Sweden for a night, or Finland at least. People don’t even take off their shoes at the door. There’s a handful of Americans and Canadians; a sleek, loud Italian woman; a German with slicked-back hair; a few Australians. Everyone in English, loud and fast. On the stereo it’s Sonic Youth, then some weird French rap, then Blondie. I’m transported.
Around ten a big blond American powers through the door. He says, “Youguysyouwillneverbelievewhatjusthappenedtome.”
In the snow outside, his taxi slid ever so slowly toward an old woman obliviously crossing the street. He and the driver started screaming, they bashed the horn, but of course it was broken. “By the time we hit her we must’ve been going just a couple miles an hour, but the buildup was horrible. This poor stooped lady. I thought we were going to kill her.”
His cheeks are pink and alcoholic, the sides of his neck lightly pickled in the manner of someone who had a good dermatologist as a teen. His yellow hair stands up in stiff tufts, his eyes are raw blue.
“Well?” someone says.
“She popped up and started banging on the hood, demanding we pay her something.” His face flashes between astonished and jubilant.
“What’d you do?”
“The cabbie started screaming at her, calling her a fraud. It was fucking horrible. I was like, hey, she’s a babushka. I wanted to take her to the hospital, but she just got this zloi look on her face and kept saying, twenty bucks, twenty bucks.”
Later I learn they’re all in on a running dare: who can catch the most unconventional gypsy cab. Apparently, in times of grave civic collapse, when no one knows exactly who’s in charge, you can flag down and get a ride from such things as a garbage truck, even a snowplow. The German by the window holds the record with an off-duty city bus. “It’s true,” the others vouch. I’ve been burrowing through the city by subway all these months; who knew?
I sit studying them from a corner of the futon. Part of me is revolted, but there’s another part, the groupless part. The language coming out of their mouths is perfect and swift and takes no effort to follow. They have normal food like potato chips and beer. I saw bananas and a box of Frosted Flakes in the kitchen.
Last month, Edik and I were riding home on a train from a friend’s dacha, and the little bundled-up girl across the aisle fell asleep curled in her grandma’s lap. Touching. All of us lulled together by the bounce and clatter of the rails. Except all I could think was that this was his iconic memory of childhood travel, while mine took place in the back of a station wagon, locked in a private nuclear family, in a car unlike any he’d seen or would see. Memories so different they could never be fused. He reached for my hand, maybe sensing that I’d stopped breathing. It was nothing I could explain to him.
Eventually the guy who hit the old lady bumbles drunkenly toward me and flops down. “You’re new.” His name is Jacob. From Miami. Really? Miami.
He’s saying, just to me, “We should have gone after her. She was limping, you know? This is gonna dog me the rest of my life.” He’s looking at his lap, where his hands are twisting the hell out of his shirttails. Only after he’s done talking does he glance up, as if surprised to find me still here, listening. His eyes go all grateful as he takes me in, until something startles him and he laughs. “Wait, what is this you’re wearing? You’ve got sequins, even?”
In the winter like this, when the light lasts only six hours a day, and Christmas is coming and you’re just twenty-one, this kind of talk can seduce you. For the first time you understand why the word language so often comes from the word tongue. Of course it’s this base, writhing thing you survive on, this thing that unfurls from your core, where you can’t see its origins. You can try to escape yourself, but you’re still here.
Jacob has bath salts. A long, deep tub in a big, tiled bathroom with ceilings fifteen feet high. The place has been partially renovated for foreigners but retains the mysterious Soviet design trend of a transom window between the bathroom and the kitchen, so while I soak he calls to me from the stove, asking if I want pesto or red sauce. He wanders in and refills my wineglass, then leaves again. It’s that kind of life now, all through the spring. He has satellite TV; he buys cases of wine; he wears a grown-up overcoat, though he’s not yet twenty-five. We’re on the twelfth floor of the famous Kudrinskaya Ploshchad building, one of the seven glories Stalin built to embellish the city’s horizon. Everyone says the apartments are bugged, but we’re not sure who would be listening at this point. The place is smoky and not very clean, but there are big windows framing the city, and a piano, and French doors between the rooms. For work Jacob does some kind of trading for an American firm—iron and steel, I think—but he seems to work little, and more for amusement than money. He dresses in suits that were clearly once beautiful but are now dingy and loose, with a spot somewhere on every shirt. He keeps his face angled down most of the time, glancing up to make eye contact only in nervous rushes.
He has an international phone line and lets me call my parents and friends. I expect thrilled, heartfelt conversations each time, but in reality our topics in common have dwindled. My friends from school are all on the verge of graduating, looking for jobs. My old roommate’s engaged and says, “Why are you talking that way? You sound Canadian or something.”
Like Jacob and his friends I no longer fit there, but I don’t quite fit here, which would almost make us all fit together if we weren’t just misfits by nature. These are people who speak four or five languages, who drift from one country to another every year or two, who keep dog-eared How to Learn Welsh or Turkish textbooks on the floor next to their toilets. Jacob can sit for hours just reading a dictionary.
With them I see another side of the city, the expat bars and hard-currency shops, where big guards check passports to keep out Russians because the only kind who would spend this sort of money would have to be mafia men or hookers—more trouble than they’re worth. I see inside all the grand hotels—the breathtaking art nouveau Metropol, the French bakery inside the Cosmos, the Spanish restaurant in the lobby of the Moskva, where one day we wind up next to former senator Gary Hart, who broke my spirit freshman year with his campaign scandals.
We roam and roam. I have to jog every few steps to keep up as Jacob lopes absentmindedly through the city, chain smoking and occasionally stopping to point at a business and say, “Was this here last week?” I never know, but he’ll stop a stranger to ask, chat for ten minutes with any willing Russian about the history of a neighborhood. When our cabbies get lost he gives instructions so detailed they double take him suspiciously.
Today we’re down by the river embankment, in front of a sleek new Italian clothes store on a brand-new, deserted street.
“We should go get you something nonpolyester.”
“Hey, I’m fine. Do you know how fast this stuff dries?” I’m still doing all my laundry by hand, in my bathtub.
He draws me inside anyway, and the clerks greet him as if they know him already, but maybe they’ve been trained to do that. He makes odd humming sounds to himself as he picks his way through the store. Hovering over a stack of women’s sweaters, he says, “This color would be good on you.”
To see merchandise displayed for us to fondle, instead of trapped behind counters guarded by babushkas, gives me an anxious giddiness, and I can tell that the shopkeepers, though trained to accept the practice, still rise up on the balls of their feet as they watch us making ourselves at home.
I shake my head and twist away as he holds up a sweater to me. It’s soft as a rabbit, pale blue-gray, and simple, probably dry clean only.
“You’re never going to blend in anyway,” he says, gesturing at my Russian ensemble. “Not like this, anyway.” He says to the shopgirl, “Guess where she’s from.”
She’s model beautiful and blushes, shakes her head. “Davaite,” he says. Come on.
She shrugs and smiles helplessly. “U.S.A.”
I make a swift move for the door and lean against the wall outside, mortified for some reason.
He saunters out and lights a fresh cigarette and reaches back for my hand as he starts to cross the street. I put my hands in my pockets and watch him go.
He glances back just once, then heads through a vast construction zone toward the river. The truth is I’m all turned around, I’m lost, and there’s not a car or metro station in sight, not even a bus stop. What have I been doing? It’s a gray, drizzly day and the light is fading and his hulked-over figure is getting smaller and smaller. When I’m close enough that he can hear my footsteps he slows down and waits for me, stretches back a hand for me to take. At the far edge of the construction we have to climb a low fence to get to an old red wooden tugboat on the river that seems like something out of a Popeye cartoon. Onboard, there’s a beautiful mahogany bar inside, and we are the only foreigners. Again, the bartender says hello as if he knows Jacob, and when I respond in Russian he smiles at me as if I’m a charming accessory. We sit in a small booth by a window, and the water outside brings me back to the vast, brown Mississippi.
“So north is that way?” I point upriver, desperate to reclaim my bearings. “Does it run north and south?” Jacob laughs and pulls a battered map out of his coat, and I’m faced with the mazelike path of the river through the city. “It goes just about everywhere. It’s no kind of landmark to use. How can you not know this?”
I tell him to quiz me on any part of the metro map, but he just shakes his head. “That’s easy. That’s tourist stuff.” He orders us some Dutch beer and then sets a bag on the table. It sits there, tissue paper and all, through three rounds.
“You should try it on at least,” he says once we’re managing smiles again.
The bartender’s drunk and glancing over conspiratorially. I peel off my glittery green and pink turtleneck and shiver in my dingy t-shirt for a second while Jacob bites the tags off the sweater and hands it over. He tilts his head to one side to take me in.
A slow smile spreads across his face. “What are you so afraid of?”
I shrug. “Nothing.” But it comes out like a bluff.
Suddenly Jacob straightens his posture. A lanky blonde is headed right toward us. She’s Russian; it’s obvious from every sleek move. He stubs out his cigarette but doesn’t stand up, and she surveys me with the briefest of glances as he introduces us.
“That was fun the other night,” she says in Russian and starts to prattle about a dance club they apparently went to last week. She places one long slender hand on his shoulder, and he holds still. It’s hard not to be intimidated by the seemingly flawless Russian women who hover around foreign men, acting as though they’d do just about anything to get a ticket out of here. They’re gorgeous and smart and perfectly fluent—walking, breathing language coaches operating on their own turf. Jacob sighs and avoids looking at me. I focus on the water out the window.
“Oh, come on,” he says outside afterward. “You have Edik.”
“Right,” I say, but of course I don’t. Edik’s not an idiot, and I couldn’t lie to him. I haven’t seen him in months. I haven’t fed anyone, haven’t thrown any parties. I take the metro home alone in the sweater, and sit on my balcony through half the night, trying to remember who I used to be.
I’ve missed the deadline to start school in the fall so I stay another two months, socking away money for tuition. By Christmas I’ll be home, or where home used to be. Sometimes I go for walks with Anna Petrovna but mostly I leave my apartment just for work and food. When I get especially lonely I go down to a little pizza place that’s opened up not too far from work and I sit at the bar and order two beers and one pizza margherita. They have CNN on satellite, and all the lonesome new expats with no friends and no Russian skills sit around staring at it.
One night they show a clip of Bill Clinton playing his saxophone on Arsenio, and it makes me blush. Then somebody plops down next to me, saying, “Nu, privet,” in a deep, familiar voice.
It’s Andrei. He has a big bruise across a third of his face and a scab through the middle of his left brow.
“What happened to you?”
He shrugs it off. “Car accident,” he says, but that feels like a lie.
“How’s business?” I say.
“Outstanding. Bez problem. Better all the time.” He owns four kiosks now, and is looking into buying a bar.
“Good for you. And you don’t have . . . opponents?” I say, wondering about his face.
He shrugs. “Everybody has enemies. That’s just business.”
A soccer game comes on and we talk about that for a while. We share a pizza and a couple of beers, no shots, no toasts.
“Oh, I’m going to be a dad,” he says. “In March.”
“Wow,” I say, in English, because he always liked the way that sounded.
“Owow,” he says, in a slow and careful effort.
“You should really call Edik, before you go,” he says at the end of the night, and I nod. I know I should, but where would it land me? I give Andrei my parents’ address and phone number, just in case, for the future. A few weeks later, I’ll translate an article about a Russian businessman killed in a drive-by shooting on the steps out in front of this restaurant. It won’t be Andrei or Edik, but for a minute my brain’ll go white with the possibility. There’ll be more of these kinds of shootings to come, many more.
The last night I remember of the city is election night, 1992. Some American companies sponsor a party at the Radisson Slavyanskaya Hotel, by Kiev Station. They put out an open invitation to Americans to come watch the returns all through the night into morning. Some people from work talk me into going, and I’m both drawn and repelled by the prospect of seeing Jacob there. It’s been weeks. Over a thousand people show up, more Americans than I ever imagined were here. It feels like a huge high school dance, except we’re of all ages in our motley jeans and wet boots, with our limp hair and tired eyes as the night goes on.
I spot a cluster of Jacob’s friends by the Miller Lite stand, and they wave me over so I walk the plank. It turns out he’s moved on to Prague for a new job, and I won’t run into him here or anywhere again. “Prague,” they say, capturing a whole room of jealousy in one word.
Ross Perot splits the conservative vote and this chubby sax player closes the gap. Carol Moseley-Braun becomes the first black woman senator, and a cheer goes up in the room like I’ve never heard. I realize, shouting and clapping, that I’m being louder right now than I’ve been in all eighteen months here. I’ve been sneaking around, keeping my head low, for so long. And no matter what anyone says tomorrow, tonight we’re bound by something tinged with pride. Never mind that Moseley-Braun will get mired in corruption and Clinton will become a national embarrassment—like drunk, dancing Yeltsin, who’s been selling all the nation’s resources to five or six men. We don’t know that yet. We drink and dance and try to believe, for now. Around dawn I drag my bones downstairs and out the front door, where I watch two women getting into an official black taxi outside, right in front of the lobby where they cost triple. They’re laughing and stumbling like college girls, so young. I zip up and walk down the street a few blocks to hail a normal car for a dollar, and the driver asks me what the heck I’ve been doing all night. The sun is starting to come up. I tell him about the election, about the whole ridiculous party, free food and everything. He says, “Yeah, but how do you know Bush will really step down? Why should he yield to this new guy?”
Despite everything I’ve learned here, the question still strikes me as ludicrous. “He just will,” I say. “That’s how it works.”
“But what if he doesn’t,” the driver says. “He probably likes being president, after all.”
“He just will,” I say, looking out the window at the cold river curving beside us, cutting its crazy route through the vast city. All these months I intended to memorize its path, but I never quite got around to it, and in the end I never will.
Read more about Valerie here . . .
. . . and see her read this story here!