Biographies & Memoirs

18. Waiting

DEAR LENA, WRITES ROBERT from Copenhagen, where he had to change planes on the way back to the United States. I’m in the airport, waiting for my flight, thinking about you. There are no border patrolmen with gold epaulets and no guns, but every store sells salted herring, just like in Leningrad. Will write again from the States.

I receive this postcard a month later, when Robert is back in New Jersey, or Texas, having long forgotten about Danish herring, but not about Leningrad. Soon after the postcard, a long envelope arrives with my name written in a careful foreign handwriting, and then a letter appears in my mailbox every week. I miss you, he writes, in English and Russian. He wants me to respond in Russian, so he can practice his grammar. I’ve already begun inquiries into coming back in December, he writes. Getting a visa is a tortuous process and needs to be started early. It’s difficult to get to talk to someone in the Soviet Embassy in Washington—they don’t answer the phones.

Nina just laughs when I tell her about the Embassy phones. In August, we were given temporary full-time teaching jobs in the Philology department we’d just graduated from. Natalia Borisovna pats us on the shoulders and says that our summer work at the American program has strengthened our prospects. After a few years of temporary teaching, if we take an active role in Komsomol and union activities and if some faculty member drops dead or decides to retire, we may be considered for a permanent university teaching job. It’s a remote possibility, whispers Natalia Borisovna, I won’t deny it, but if such an opening happens to come up, I won’t recommend anyone but you. We are very grateful, says Nina, who knows what to say in every social situation. It will be a great privilege and honor to work in this department by your side, she adds.

I am not sure Natalia Borisovna would be so helpful if she knew that a student I met at the American program, where I worked on her recommendation, has been calling the Soviet Embassy in Washington to get a visa to see me again in December. I’m not sure she would be helpful at all if she knew that he sends me a letter every week with reports about his life and graduate studies at the University of Texas. The stories about his teaching assistantship and his Indian roommate are as incomprehensible to me as if they were written in Farsi, the language he tried to learn when he went to Afghanistan as part of the Peace Corps five years earlier. I don’t know what the Peace Corps is, but I suspect it may actually have something to do with world peace, unlike our own House of Friendship and Peace, where I worked as a secretary to the departed director.

If you want to see the U.S., Robert writes in one of his weekly letters, maybe I can help you. Maybe you can come as my friend, on a visitor’s visa.

I read this sitting at the desk in my mother’s room and snicker. I know I’m supposed to feel appreciative, and I do, but I also feel frustrated. Who in his right mind would allow me or anyone else within the borders of the Soviet Union to go visit a friend in a capitalist country? Who would allow me to see that there are lifestyles more illuminated than our own bright future? The few exchange delegations that are permitted abroad, as I learned working in the House of Friendship and Peace, are carefully selected from the internal ranks and assiduously screened to make sure they are free of such compromising traits as foreign friends or Jewish relatives. A foreign friend is a liability we try to conceal, a handicap that instantly makes us untrustworthy and suspicious.

I think of how liberating it must feel to be able to visit friends who have never heard of Komsomol meetings that vote on the fate of a prospective tourist, or character reports required for foreign trips, or our infamous OVIR, the visa department. The visas that OVIR allegedly issues from time to time—not to most applicants and not cheerfully—are visas to leave the country, a notion that made Robert squint in confusion when I tried to explain to him what our country thinks about foreign travel. “You need a visa to leave?” he asked and scratched his forehead, although I expected him to know more about our bureaucracy. “In the rest of the world you need a visa to enter a foreign country.”

“We’re different from the rest of the world,” I said, thinking that Natalia Borisovna would be proud of this statement, thinking that in some perverted way, I was proud of it, too. “There’s something else we need to do when we leave the country,” I said, adding more weight to my twisted pride. “We have to go through customs. It’s not only what you bring in that must be ransacked by law, but also what you take out.”

“What is there to take out?” asked Robert, looking around.

Unable to control the impulse to laugh off such an outrageously misguided statement, I fumbled for an example of an exported commodity. “Rubles, for instance,” I said, but Robert scrunched his nose as if inhaling a smell from the garbage bins in my courtyard, letting me know that rubles are worthless beyond our borders. “Lacquered Palekh boxes,” I said, thinking of the exclusive shelves of the Beriozka shop I was allowed to glimpse in the ninth grade, with all its glamour of salami and Pasternak poetry—as Robert pleated his lips into a smirk. “Icons, for instance,” I said, reaching for the indisputable, thinking of Marina’s first film role in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Tsarist Bride, shot in a tiny village in Central Russia, whose church had been promptly relieved of its religious artifacts by the insightful movie crew.

“Icons?” said Robert and rolled his eyes. “Where could a tourist get an icon anyway?”

He was right. Not in a tiny village tucked under birches and fir trees in the European part of the country where there might still be a babushka or two who, in their pre-revolutionary ignorance, keep clutching at the idea of the divine. No foreigner would be allowed to go to such a village, of course, even if he was willing to pay for the ticket in the hard, dependable currency of a capitalist country.

So it was at this point that I realized the futility of my argument, the futility of every argument, present or future, Robert and I might have. The problem we face is that under his un-Russian curly hair presides an American brain, which is fundamentally different from my Russian brain. If I had to place us on the Darwinian origin of species tree, Robert would sit on the end of the top branch, while I would dangle off a side, dead-end stump. The fact that we can speak each other’s language is as irrelevant to our mutual understanding as my mother’s loaded silences and pointed looks.

On the desk where I’m sitting there is a picture of my mother in my grandparents’ garden in Stankovo, standing by an apple tree holding up a branch that sinks under the weight of apples. Next to her stands my smiling grandma, her face creased with wrinkles. The photograph was taken six years ago, just before she died “from her heart.” That’s what my anatomy professor mother said with uncharacteristic imprecision: she died from her heart, like most Russians. It was an expected death, at an age when most of our compatriots already lie in cemeteries, just a year before Dedushka, my grandfather, died from his heart, too.

I don’t know why I keep looking at my grandma’s photograph, at her smiling eyes behind round glasses, at the black and white apples on sagging tree branches, the garden I’ve always resented as much as my own dacha. I can almost feel the worn-out-cotton softness of the dress she’s wearing in the picture, the dress I suddenly remember so well that its dry, woody smell of her oak armoire rises to my nostrils. Mamochka, as my mother used to call her, the diminutive of mama— a plain, non-endearing form I use to address my own mother. What would Grandma, with her arms as soft as her dress, think of moving to America? What would she think of me? “Whatever happens, happens for the best,” she always said in her calm, liquid voice when things happened that no one liked.

THEN MAYBE I CAN invite you as my fiancée, writes Robert. I’ve inquired at the State Department, where they told me there is such a program. You can come here and stay for up to a year to see if you like it.

I reread the word fiancée, which sounds frightening and thrilling. It sounds as if it has floated from a more old-fashioned life, from the world of Pushkin and Tolstoy, when women, before they married, became engaged after they danced with some officer at their first ball and then faithfully waited for him to return from a battle with the French army or an exile to the Caucasus.

I reread the words “if you like it.” I know I’ll only be a make-believe fiancée, but as such, could I really see with my own eyes what we’ve only been allowed to glimpse in books? Could I really step through the looking glass and wonder if I like it there? I know that in our locked-up universe an exit visa for a fiancée is as far-fetched as that for a friend, yet I sit at my mother’s desk and think of America. It is clearly a waste of time: the images are foggy and monochromatic; they shift with every breath I take because, like our bright future, they are based on nothing. I try to imagine where Robert lives, but all that drifts into my head are Leningrad courtyards and flaking façades with yellow windows peeking through the dusk. I try to imagine an American airport, but all I can see is the one-story shack of Pulkovo, with two rusty toilets and a dozen planes scattered on cracked asphalt taken over by weeds.

When I stop trying to conjure up the unimaginable, I go to work. In the corridors of my university’s catacombs, where I teach grammar and reading to my eight classes of first- and second-year students, I run into an ex-classmate, whose name I can barely dredge out of my memory. She beams a toothy smile, towering above me on her slender heels, and I remember she almost flunked out in her senior year because she had just begun modeling for the state House of Fashion. “I’m getting married,” she announces as soon as she corners me in the nook behind my classroom. “My fiancé has just flown in from Düsseldorf.” “Germany?” I ask, stupidly. “Of course Germany,” she giggles, flashing glamorous teeth that have not yet been ruined by Soviet dentistry. “I couldn’t think of what to ask him to bring, so he brought me a tennis outfit and a racquet. I keep asking, where are we going to play tennis?” she says, laughing.

Where, indeed? I am thinking that she should have asked for something more practical, like a pair of boots, or a winter coat. Or at least a pair of jeans. Last year, when an American movie called The Domino Principle was released into our theaters, everyone marveled at the fact that even prisoners in American jails were wearing blue denim. “If they dress their convicts in jeans, life can’t be too bad there,” my mother announced when we were walking out of the theater, a straw of hope to keep her afloat. As I watch the movement of my classmate’s crimson lips, I can only think that she is foolish not to have asked her fiancé for a pair of blue jeans.

I am also thinking it is strange that he had to ask what to bring at all. Surely he has been here before to see what we have in our stores—nothing. A pair of pantyhose would make a girl insanely happy. A pair of winter boots that don’t look like felt peasant valenkiwould generate a cry of ecstasy. A denim jacket would bring on tears. But foreigners don’t understand this. They stubbornly refuse to give practical gifts, bringing instead packages of flavored tea, or tablecloths that don’t fit Russian tables, or tennis outfits complete with white hair bands.

“Could you visit your fiancé in Germany?” I ask, being as practical in my question as my mother. “I heard it may be possible to visit before they actually have your passports stamped.” Of course, I heard nothing of that sort, but I feel that I need at least one outside opinion before I write back to Robert.

My ex-classmate frowns for a second, as if utterly confused. “Why would they allow that?” she says, wagging her head so that strands of her thick, model hair fall across her face. “If they allowed such visits, can you imagine what would happen to this department?”

I can imagine, so I nod.

I write to Robert about what I’ve learned. Then I think of our different brains and add a couple of sentences of my own, direct and to the point: Engagement, like friendship, is an unbinding relationship, not written into the Soviet law. Only in the West, where the individual seems to trump the collective, can it be considered a legal foundation for such a serious procedure as a visa. I write this in English to make sure he understands every word. Then in Russian I write about mundane things: the classes I teach and the early November snow that fell on the columns of the demonstrators marching under my windows to celebrate yet another anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution.

In the university corridors I run into two other ex-classmates, Natasha and Luba. They, too, are getting married to foreigners: Natasha to a Finn, Luba to a Swede. Natasha tells me that on his way out of Leningrad her fiancé was escorted into a little room off the customs area and locked up for two hours so he missed his flight to Helsinki. Luba tells me that she was not allowed into a hotel for foreigners where her Swede was staying, accused by the doorman of being a prostitute—although everyone knows there are no prostitutes in our country, just as there are no homeless or unemployed. “These social ills afflict only the West,” I said to Luba, “where they fester like maggots upon the flesh of unjust societies, contributing to their gradual rot and imminent demise.” I wanted to force a little smile out of her lips because she had begun to sniffle when she told me that the doorman reached out and squeezed her butt as she was leaving.

I listen carefully to this exclusive, firsthand information, wishing I could share in the wisdom of the shadowy sisterhood that has sprouted, unsurprisingly, at the university’s foreign language department. After all, the professors of scientific communism were right when they used to terrorize us at their seminars: nothing good can possibly come out of someone who speaks a foreign language. We are hopeless and warped; we are unreliable and confused. We don’t know what’s good for us. “When things are good you don’t search for better,” a Russian saying goes, one of my mother’s favorites.

But all my former classmates are marrying Europeans. Finland is only a bus ride away; Sweden is just across the Gulf, its proximity the reason for the city’s first fortress; Germany, as everyone knows, was reached on foot in 1945. America, on the other hand, is all the way on the other side of the Earth, in the same hemisphere as parrots, feathered Indians, and Brazil. I might as well tell my mother that I’m thinking of traveling through a black hole.

As usual, I tell my mother nothing. I know what she thinks, and she knows that I know. She hands me long American envelopes when she takes them out of the mailbox. She bangs silverware in the kitchen drawer and blames my friend Nina for luring me into the American program summer job. When she asks about Robert, I say he is probably going to travel here for New Year’s. I know that she knows why he’s coming, but she wants me to say it. I tell her he’s studying Russian customs and needs to see a real New Year’s tree.

What would my father say about Robert? Was he disillusioned enough with our life to consider this possible marriage a positive move? Or would he, like my mother, lament it and worry? I think of him sitting in a boat, rowing into the Gulf of Finland, into the murky waters that separate us from the West. I wonder if he ever thought of crossing that invisible line, of rowing toward the big black ships that crawl along the horizon; I wonder if it ever occurred to him to leave behind his ordinary life: the director’s desk, and the dacha he didn’t want to paint, and the “cow chow” salads my mother chopped for him. He was a loner, my father, a man with no past; he could have kept gliding in his boat, working the oars. Was this the reason he loved fishing—that possibility of rowing away from the shore, toward the horizon?

ROBERT ARRIVES ON DECEMBER 20, 1979. He has somehow arranged with the university to stay in the same dorm where he lived in the summer. I go to the airport to meet him, and when I glimpse him through the glass, opening his suitcase for a customs official, he looks completely unfamiliar in a winter parka, a strange foreigner with corkscrew hair and silly thick glasses. A strange foreigner to whom a strange word has now been attached—fiancé. When he emerges from the customs area, his suitcase ransacked, he smiles and pecks me on the cheek. I brought you a present, he says, and pulls out a silk scarf.

In my last letter, when I wrote that our government would not permit a fiancée visa, Robert, with the directness of a scientist, asked this question: let me know what will work to bring you here. And although I didn’t have time to write back before he arrived, I had a suspicion that he knew the answer, just as I did. He knew the answer then and he knows it now, shouldering his way out of the customs trap full of flustered tourists and smug men in ill-fitting gray uniforms. It’s quite obvious, even to a visitor, that there are only two ways to leave this country: Jewish blood in your veins or a foreigner to marry.

Robert’s arrival signals to everyone that we may be getting married. What other reason can there be for him to willingly jump the hurdles constructed by the Soviet Embassy in Washington and trudge across the globe to minus-25-degree, snow-blanketed Leningrad?

It is an awkward subject I try to avoid with Robert. But I also, rather clumsily, try to steer toward it since he is here for only two weeks and we don’t have much time. If he goes back to Texas with nothing said, I might as well go back to my apartment and ask my mother for the recipe for borsch.

Robert seems to feel as awkward as I do, so our first two days together are filled with silent sightseeing and complaints about the cold.

On the third day Robert says what I’ve been waiting to hear. We are walking toward my apartment building, the air so cold that it feels like shards of glass scraping down my throat. Marina has made a pot of sour cabbage schi according to her own recipe, so we are expected in my kitchen at three.

“If you want to leave this country,” he says as we clutch on to each other because the sidewalk is solid ice, “I’ll marry you. I’ll do it if that’s what it takes to get you out of here.” He is composed; he rubs his temple under his hat; he sounds as noble as a character from Tolstoy. “But please understand, I’m not ready to be married. I don’t know if I ever will be.” I glance at his profile, so serious and foreign, so close to my face that I can see tiny drops frozen inside his mustache. “I want to see other women,” he says. “I want to continue seeing Karen.”

I must have a puzzled look on my face because Robert stops, takes off his glasses, and starts wiping them with his scarf. “I’ve known Karen for a long time,” he says. “As long as I’ve been in Austin, four years. She’s a professor at the University of Texas Slavic department. We’re good friends, and I want to keep seeing her.”

I stop too and blow into my mittens to warm my fingers, but I’m really giving myself time to think. I’m standing under a huge icicle that hangs off a windowsill straight above my head, thinking about Robert’s proposal, but instead of an appropriate response, a string of bitter questions unwinds in my head. So why do you need me at all, I want to ask. You already have someone who can correct your Russian. Can’t we pretend that we are really going to get married, at least for a little while?

I know how to pretend well, I want to say, and I’m willing to pretend that we are a couple. I’m willing to pretend that I love Robert as much as I loved the Crimean Boris, as much as I loved Slava from my sister’s theater. I’m willing to pretend that I love Robert as much as I need to.

But I don’t say anything. I don’t want to show what I am thinking. It’s a lifelong practice, a tribute to Grandma’s words, What’s inside you no one can touch.

“I understand,” I say—although I really don’t—and hook my arm around Robert’s elbow. Then I add a mousy “thank you” that puffs out of my mouth and hangs in the air in a small cloud of frozen breath.

IN MY APARTMENT, OVER Marina’s schi and the meatballs with buckwheat, Robert announces that we’ve decided to get married. The air in our kitchen seems to have hardened into lead as I stare into my plate, afraid to face my mother. I feel as if we are in the silent scene at the end of Gogol’s Inspector General, so finally I look up and utter the words “Gogol’s silent scene,” an idiotic phrase that gets stuck in the leaden air, having explained nothing.

Marina gets up and rinses her plate under the faucet. I know that theoretically she, like Nina, thinks one should hop on the first available plane pointed out of this country, but in life things aren’t that simple. In real life, my mother sits frozen over a plate of buckwheat, her eyebrows creased together in a frown, her eyes like shattered glass. Maybe she was hoping that when it came to a crisis, such as a marriage proposal from an American, I would be able to shake off all that acquired philological decadence and return to my innate Russianness. Maybe she was still hoping I was normal.

Robert looks at me quizzically and I look at Marina, who is conveniently staring down, scrubbing her plate.

“Wait,” says my mother as her face becomes older. “What does this mean, you’re getting married?”

I don’t know how to answer her question. “It means we have to go to the Acts of Marriage Palace, the central one on the Neva, and find out about the procedures,” I say, grasping at an opportunity to switch to the clear-cut matters of bureaucratic routine. “Tomorrow is Wednesday, so we’ll go tomorrow. It’s all right,” I add, a signal to Marina to save her stage voice, a signal to my mother that I’ve made up my mind.

“So when are you planning to … get married?” asks my mother, pausing before the last two words, as though her mouth cannot contort to their shape.

I feel strange hearing these words directly aimed at me. I’m twenty-four, and no one but Robert has ever contemplated marrying me. Yet it is not my advancing age and a fear of remaining single, like my sister, that have made me accept Robert’s offer.

It feels like a revelation, although somewhere inside me, where familiar things are stripped naked, I have known this all along. I want to leave this country, which, it dawns on me, is so much like my mother. They are almost the same age, my mother and my motherland. They are both in love with order, both overbearing and protective. They’re prosaic; neither my mother nor my motherland knows anything about the important things in life: the magic of Theater, the power of the English language, love. They’re like the inside of a bus at a rush hour in July: you can’t breathe, you can’t move, and you can’t squeeze your way to the door to get out.

From his guest chair at the head of the kitchen table, Robert gives my mother an uneasy, regretful smile, as if to apologize for planning to take me to the other side of the Earth, to a place so faraway that the thought of it alone has filled her eyes with tears, making her blink.

THE NEXT DAY, DESPITE my plan, we don’t go to the Acts of Marriage Palace. Our Supreme Soviet announces that it has sent troops to Afghanistan in order to help it rid itself of the atavisms of capitalism. The news is all over the front pages of Pravda and Izvestiya, in long articles with fat headlines explaining that if we didn’t invade Afghanistan, it would be gobbled up by the war-mongering United States. “Chorny pauk—like a bloodthirsty black spider,” reads Robert from a Pravda on the kitchen table, “the U.S. is always on the lookout for new opportunities to strangle socialism and catapult the world back to the dark, retrograde, pre-revolutionary past.”

“Gobbled up by the United States?” asks Robert, raising his eyebrows. “I’ve been to Afghanistan; there’s nothing there worth gobbling up.”

We trek all over the city center in search of an English-language newspaper that will explain what’s really happening. In the lobby of Hotel Europe on Nevsky Prospekt, where I sneak in on Robert’s heels while a doorman is gawking at a parked BMW, we find the Morning Star, published by the Communist Party of Great Britain, and the Daily World, published by the Communist Party of the United States. “I’ve never seen these papers,” says Robert. “In America or England.” But he doesn’t buy them, even out of curiosity. He wants to read the real news, he says. He wants to know pravda, the truth, with Pravda, stacked up in piles everywhere we look, being the last place to find it.

We fumble through a stack of papers in Polish, Bulgarian, Serbo-Croatian, Italian, and French, until Robert pulls out something with wobbly lines printed on pinkish paper, the Financial Times of India. We hurriedly leaf through the pages of unsteady print that gives me an instant headache, looking for some mention of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, until I glance at the date and see that the paper is a week old.

I wish I could shield Robert from the onslaught of all this media nonsense on both TV channels, from announcers with serious voices and pensive eyes. I am immune to the lead articles in Pravda, vaccinated against the official line by Aunt Polya back in nursery school. I don’t pay any attention to the somber drone of the television program Vremya, which my mother switches on at nine before she goes to bed. I walk right past the grainy clips from military parades, past marching soldiers and banners unfurling in the wind that are supposed to stir up our patriotic fervor. The only thing that currently concerns me is how this new international development is going to affect the regulations for marrying a foreigner, my future visa prospects, and the Aeroflot plane schedule between Leningrad and New York.

I LEAVE ROBERT IN the Russian Museum and go to the Bureau of Foreign Marriages to find out what papers they require. My mother goes with me, to provide support against pigheaded red-tapists, she says, and I don’t mind. She has her own scores to settle with bureaucracy. Ten years ago, her medical institute put her in charge of advising a group of students from Hungary, who spent most weekends of their academic year in our kitchen, cooking goulash with stringy beef and red paprika they’d brought from home in little canvas bags. The students—grateful to my mother, who tutored them in anatomy and Soviet survival skills—invited her to visit them in Budapest, where she could meet their parents and taste the proper goulash made from real meat. But the miscreants from the visa department, after she’d bought a caseful of souvenirs for gifts and collected a dossier of required character reports, refused her a visa. It was un-Soviet, they said, for a professor to visit a foreign student’s home.

The Foreign Marriage Bureau is on the Neva, one of those former mansions that remain from our despotic past. The application office is on the first floor, under the marble stairway barred with the kind of thick red velvet rope used to cordon off museum exhibits. The building is solemn and empty; there don’t seem to be many foreign marriages. Behind the office door is a woman in her forties with graying hair cinched in a bun, her face as round and rosy-cheeked as my provincial aunt Muza’s.

“What documents are needed to marry a foreign citizen?” I ask nervously, my voice echoing off the five-meter ceiling of a home that used to belong to a count or a prince.

“What country?” asks the woman, and she peers at me as if trying to guess the answer.

“Se-Sh-Aa,” I say—the sounds hiss out of my mouth, more sibilant in Russian than the English “USA.”

The woman blinks and turns to my mother as if seeking confirmation of this statement, even more outrageous since December 25, when our government successfully preempted the American efforts to usurp Afghanistan. My mother holds her gaze and sighs.

The woman sighs, too, signaling her understanding of my mother’s silent suffering, then comes from behind her desk and stops in front of me. “My dear,” she says and cranes her neck trying to peer into my face. “You’ve fallen in love, is that it? With someone from a faraway land?” She smiles a motherly smile—too motherly—but I cannot show her what I think. I know I have to play the game and respond to her cue. I know that the fate of my leaving this place has now been placed in her hands.

I smile sheepishly and nod.

The woman steps back and lifts her chin, assuming a pose for delivering an important message. “Well, the rules for capitalist countries are actually the same as for socialist ones,” she says. “This is one area where we don’t discriminate. Marriage is marriage, and the wife should follow her husband no matter where he lives.” I’m relieved to hear this piece of medieval wisdom, but it sounds a bit too accommodating for an official line, too suspiciously easy.

“Both you and your fiancé must fill out an application here in person.” She recites the rules with inspiration, as if they were lines from Pushkin’s poetry. “You need your passport, your proof of residency in Leningrad, your birth certificate. He needs his passport and his visa. Then you wait three months.”

“Wait?” I ask. “Wait for what?”

“We give you this period in case you change your mind,” she says, smiling.

“But we’re sure we aren’t going to change our mind,” I say.

“Then in three months you come again and we register your marriage,” says the woman and cocks her head to underscore the benevolence of the state rules. “Both of you. In person.”

“But that means he has to travel here again,” I say, raising my voice involuntarily. “All the way from America. All the way from Texas!”

The woman shrugs her shoulders, undoubtedly having heard this before. “What can you do?” she says, pretending to sympathize with me, exchanging glances with my mother. “Rules are rules.”

“So then he will have to come again in March,” says my mother, her voice laced with the hope that he won’t.

“Can’t we come back in two weeks?” I ask pointlessly, knowing the answer. “He is only here for two weeks.”

The woman walks back to her desk and peers into a calendar. “March twenty-seventh,” she says. “That’s if you show up here tomorrow with all the papers in order, both of you.”

“MARCH TWENTY-SEVENTH?” SAYS ROBERT. “Can’t we come back in two weeks? Or in a month; I can stay here until the end of January.”

“This is the Soviet Union,” I say in a solemn voice, hoping that this will somehow explain everything. “We should be grateful that they’re allowing this at all.”

I don’t know if Robert thinks he should be grateful for having to be here during the coldest winter since the Leningrad siege of 1942 and having to pay in hard currency for the decrepit university dorm without heat. I don’t know if he thinks he should be grateful for having to arrange yet another trip here, visas and all, when the Soviet Consulate in New York has just been closed down in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

He gives his cheek a rub and sits there, thinking.

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