I AM ON A SECOND-FLOOR landing of the philology department, in the “philodrome”—a place to meet, smoke, and gossip. The gossip nowadays is about me: a temporary instructor and a possible graduate school candidate who has married a capitalist and is leaving for America.
After the wedding, three weeks of paper collection have finally produced a complete package accepted by the visa department, and now I’ll have to wait for my exit visa. My work record has been copied from a shelf in the university archive and notarized, my Leningrad residency rescinded, permission to leave signed by my mother, and my Komsomol membership card safely stowed away in a safe in case I decide to come back and reenter the ranks. At home, the talk about these red-tape hurdles and surly clerks allows me to avoid the talk about leaving.
I must be in the dean’s office in ten minutes, an appointment I was ordered to keep by the department’s party secretary, who was so livid that he hardly said anything because he couldn’t unclench his teeth. This meeting is going to be another expression of official outrage, a pro forma scolding.
I’ve never seen the dean before, the only proof of his existence an impatient signature on the department’s rules posted on billboards, Dean Maslov. I timidly knock on the door, as if I don’t want him to hear it, as if his not hearing it would excuse me from this visit. But the voice inside commands me to come in, and I creak the door open. His office is cluttered with chairs, filing cabinets, and papers spilling out of folders; it smells of tobacco and dust. A wrinkle-free Brezhnev in oil frowns from the wall above the desk. Dean Maslov is short and dense, his weight solidly packed inside a suit. He looks like a pirate, one eye covered with a black patch, a pipe jammed between his fingers. A communist pirate, a pirate dean. He blows out smoke and motions to the chair on the other side of the desk.
“So what have they been telling me,” he says, peering at me through the smoke, “you’re leaving us?”
“I’m married to an American citizen, so I guess I’m leaving.” Before coming here, I assembled a few stock phrases from the dustbin of jargon used in speeches and administrative orders tacked to door frames.
He draws on his pipe, squinting—whether from the pleasure of the tobacco or disgust at seeing me, I don’t know.
“Isn’t it a shame—as soon as we raise a decent student, a candidate for graduate school, she’s snatched away by the West. Well, too bad. We will have to be more careful hiring young single women to teach American students.”
I know this is a threat—not to me, but to future foreign-language majors applying for summer teaching jobs. It means that from now on these jobs will go only to women who are married, preferably to KGB officials, like the director of the American program.
“Everyone wants to go to America.” His pipe leaves a trace of smoke in the air as he throws up his arm. “America, America—that’s all we hear. America the paradise. America the land of abundance. Strawberries in the winter and a car for every citizen.”
He pauses and peers at me with his one eye.
“I’m not leaving because of strawberries in the winter,” I say since he expects me to say something. “Or even a car.”
“Not even a car, eh?” He cranes his neck as if to take a better look at me. “Well, why then?”
Although he is sharp enough to know that I am not going to tell him the truth, Dean Maslov leans back and waits for me to respond. He looks the same way Nadia from my high school looked at me yesterday when I ran into her in the street. Nadia is now a refusenik: she is Jewish, and nine months ago her application to leave the country was refused by the local visa department. Her parents, her grandmother, and her husband are now blacklisted and shunned. I felt guilty that I can leave and she cannot, too embarrassed to admit to her that my real reason for leaving has nothing to do with the cause of political freedom. It has to do with my mother. Two years ago, if Boris had asked me to marry him, I would have hopped on the first train headed for Kiev, a thousand kilometers away.
“I got married,” I say. “People get married and leave.”
The dean sets his pipe down in a heavy crystal ashtray on his desk and gets up. He was not really expecting to get an answer. According to procedure, he has to check off in a book that the talk has taken place.
“Where are you going in America?” he asks, leafing through papers on his desk.
“Ah, the land where they kill presidents.” He walks over to the bookshelf, stops, and runs his fingers over the book spines. “Well, good luck.” I don’t really know what killing of what presidents he is talking about. “I’ve been to America, you know,” he says. “I lived there for a year—a cultural exchange in the early sixties. A fascinating place.” Dean Maslov stuffs his hands into his pockets and rocks on his feet, his eye on the window, where little sticky leaves curl out of buds on poplar branches. “But you don’t want to get fired there, or get sick, or get old. There is no safety net, no collective to help. You are on your own.” He half-smiles for the first time. “It made me feel grateful for my guaranteed ninety-ruble pension.”
This is about what I expected to hear, the talk about collectives and ninety-ruble pensions, although I thought that university deans, considering their ideologically sensitive positions, made more than ninety rubles. I thought that Maslov would limit this talk to a pointy reprimand or, possibly, an angry accusation of squandering the state’s resources, wasted on my education.
“What do you mean, the land where they kill presidents?” I ask.
“You don’t know?” He wags his head to show me how hopeless he thinks I am. “In 1963 an American president was killed in Dallas, Texas. Didn’t you know that?” He looks familiar now, an authority lecturing an underling. “Your president. You should brush up on your history.”
I am not sure how I’m supposed to know what happened in America when I was eight as I cannot even find out what is happening there now. Yet he is right: I am as ignorant of my new country’s history as I am of everything else.
Dean Maslov moves back to his desk, to his spilling papers and his pipe. He must be in his mid-sixties, my mother’s age, which means he also went through the post-revolutionary chaos and the two wars. Maybe that’s why he’s tried to warn me about America. Like my mother, he comes from the first Soviet generation, from the time when vranyo was still fresh, still a little curly sprout. He comes from the time when it hadn’t yet morphed and metastasized and tunneled its way through our tissue the way my father’s cancer wormed into his bladder and his lungs. When it hadn’t yet crept through every millimeter of our flesh—this lie, which my father helped cultivate after he’d lost his teeth to scurvy, which my mother, busy organizing union meetings and funerals, barely noticed. Maybe Dean Maslov played the same crumb game my grandmother—everyone’s grandmother—invented during the famine; maybe he, too, saw a piece of bread swell into a whole mountain of crumbs.
He feels the pockets of his jacket for a box of matches, squints his one eye, and lights his extinguished pipe—not quite a pirate, not quite a pundit or a leader—an old man ready to retire on ninety rubles a month.
A silly thought floats into my head: this is what it has all come to—a mountain of crumbs.
I get up and carefully close the door behind me. The pro forma talk has taken place.
I AM ON A bus, clutching a handbag with my exit visa and an Aeroflot ticket to America. The Aeroflot office on Nevsky was empty, as always, since it deals exclusively with international travel. I went in and asked for a ticket to the United States. The girl perched on a high seat behind the counter winced, sized me up with stiff eyes outlined in imported mascara that doesn’t have to be mixed with spit, and scrutinized my visa while I stood on the other side, staring at her chin. Then, with angry reluctance, after taking my passport to the back room to consult her KGB supervisor, she wrote out a ticket in her diligent official handwriting, reserved for foreign destinations.
I get off three bus stops before my house and walk home in the August evening light. I walk across Theatre Square, past a monument to our composer Glinka, past a Kirov poster announcing the opera October, scheduled for tomorrow. My mother and I saw it when I was nine, so it has been playing there for at least fifteen years. In the second act of that old October, after the people had grown disillusioned with the tsar, after a chorus of soldiers had brandished guns toward the Winter Palace and a quartet of children had begged for food, an actor with a goatee and a bald wig thrust his arm out, Lenin-like, and announced that the October Revolution had prevailed. The crowd onstage burst into cheers, and then Lenin’s chest heaved as he took a deep breath to launch a high note that should have trumped everything that came earlier. Everything, from the first disgruntled peasant to the pack of sailors hoisting a red flag on top of the Winter Palace, even the lemonade and éclairs in the buffet during the intermission. For a second the note teetered on the brink of the required triumph, but then it collapsed into such a grinding bray that the whole audience, including people like me, with no musical ear whatsoever, simultaneously gasped.
I stop in front of the October billboard, which pictures the same singer whom I heard here fifteen years earlier. I imagined then how terrible it must have felt for him to stand there, in front of everyone in the twenty-four orchestra rows, four tiers, and the former tsarist box in the center, having in one second ruined the defining moment of Lenin’s life and the cause of the Revolution itself.
I gaze at the poster: the same disgraced singer, the same dishonored country.
MY SUITCASE GAPES OPEN on the couch, with a new pair of sandals between two shirts Marina crocheted for me. The shirts, green and purple, the only colors of thread she could find in the stores, are designed in elaborate patterns of leaves and flowers. Marina spent days bent over at a window, a tiny metal hook dipping between her fingers. I’ve seen her resew clothes—convert a pair of old pants into a patch-pattern skirt or rip out the lining of a jacket from the mothball darkness of the storage space above the refrigerator and turn it into a silk blouse—but I never suspected that such intricate elegance could emerge from under her hands.
“They’re beautiful,” I say. “It’s unfair that one person can have so many talents.”
I open the armoire and stare at the clothes dangling from hangers, none worth lugging across the Atlantic. A flowery polyester dress my mother bought for me that I have never worn; a shapeless cardigan with elbows stretched out; a sweater punctured with sparkling thread, lint clinging to its sleeves.
“Don’t forget the warm things,” says my mother, lumbering in with a load of wet laundry she begins to pin on two clotheslines crisscrossing the room.
Warm things, according to her, are as essential as soup for proper nutrition or fresh air for healthy lungs. One should always have a good amount of warm things—hats, gloves, scarves, and coats—to ensure survival.
“I won’t need any warm things,” I say. “I’m going to Texas. It’s warm there all year long.”
“It’s warm now,” she says, pinning up a sheet, “but come winter and you’ll be sorry you don’t have them.” She bends over the pile of laundry and quotes one of her proverbs, “We don’t cherish what we have, then cry when we lose it.”
I’m about to say that Texas has no winter, but I don’t. In the past few weeks my mother’s sayings have strangely begun to make sense; it has occurred to me that maybe all those little lines we’ve heard since nursery school sound like such clichés precisely because they are true. “Without work, you won’t even pull a minnow out of a lake,” or “Don’t get into someone else’s sled,” or “If you knew where you’d fall, you’d put down some straw”—they all, I’m reluctant to admit, are beginning to feel like unlearned lessons of wisdom, too late to start acquiring now.
When my mother is finished pinning up our duvets and pillowcases, she goes into the kitchen to make dinner. Marina is home tonight, too, and as I stand in the hallway under the coatrack among the crinkly raincoat sleeves, I hear the muted sizzling of their voices. My mother’s voice trembles with fear; my sister’s sputters with contempt for anyone who feels alarmed about leaving for the West.
“What do we know about America, really?” says my mother. “People beg on the streets and sleep under bridges and everyone walks around with a gun.”
“Good,” says Marina. “If I had a gun here I’d know what to do with it.”
There is a pause, a clinking of pots. I want to go in and tell my mother that I won’t beg or sleep under a bridge.
“And how is this nearsighted writer going to support her?” asks my mother. “He is a student, isn’t he? Do they have stipends for students over there?”
“How do I know?” barks Marina in a stage whisper. “She doesn’t need any stipends from him. She speaks English. She’ll do just fine.”
I hear my mother sigh, then sniffle.
I pop my head into the kitchen door. “Did you hear that?” I say. “I’ll do just fine. I promise.” I straighten up and bend my elbow in a Pioneer salute. My mother shakes her head and blows her nose, but I can see a little smile struggling to rise to her lips.
I go back to the room divided by the wet laundry, to my half-empty suitcase. I pack the American Heritage Dictionary in its red jacket, a present from Robert, the second most valuable thing I own after a pair of corduroy Levis. From the dresser I scoop several bottles of perfume I bought with my private-student income. I carefully wrap each one in newspaper and place them between the shirts.
The rest of the twenty kilograms Aeroflot allows is presents. Russian souvenirs for Robert and his family that my mother and sister have been piling on the couch. Wooden spoons painted in the red and gold colors of Khokhloma, black metal trays with roses, linen tablecloths with matching napkins. On the television set beams a chrome samovar my mother obtained through her medical connections, a present I’ve refused to take. I could see myself in an American airport, swaddled in kerchiefs and scarves, cardboard samovar boxes tied with string weighing down my hands.
When I’m finished packing, Marina comes into the room. She straightens the sheets on the clothesline, closes my suitcase, and pulls it down onto the floor. We sit wedged into the corner of the couch, without talking, in a space darkened by the hanging laundry.
“What do you think America’s really like?” I ask.
She stares at my suitcase, thinking. “It’s like a corridor of light,” she says. “You know, what people are supposed to see before they die—this shining light, a passage to somewhere else.”
I don’t know why I’m asking Marina, who clings to superstitions and believes in everything our dacha Gypsy neighbor tells her when she fans a deck of cards. I don’t know why I’m listening to my sister, who went to St. Nicholas Cathedral two blocks from our house in Leningrad and paid five rubles to get baptized by a drunk charlatan with dirty hair. I’m also not grateful to her for this dubious analogy. I’m not planning to die tomorrow. On the contrary, my life is just about to begin, as far as I can see.
She looks into my face and moves closer. “It’s our bright future, this light,” she says. “The future we’ve been promised since nursery school, since 1917 and the storming of the Winter Palace. Only no one has told us it’s on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.”
We sit quietly for a minute, without moving.
“You have to tell Mama,” I say. “About the bright future.”
She nods and puts her arm around my shoulder.
“It’s scary, like the first day of school,” I say. “First grade, when I was seven. Everyone came wearing white aprons over their uniforms, but I didn’t know—and Mama didn’t tell me; maybe she didn’t know either—so I wore the regular black. I stood there, the only one in black among the crowd of white, not even knowing what my teacher looked like, not even knowing where I was supposed to go. With a stupid bunch of gladioli Mama stuffed into my hand.”
“From our dacha, no doubt,” says Marina and wiggles even closer.
“Yeah,” I say. “Where else?”
GRIS, WHO HAS VOLUNTEERED to drive me to the airport, arrives at two-thirty, ten minutes early. When Marina opens the door, all we can see is a huge bunch of flowers Gris is holding in front of his face.
“Here, here.” My mother hurries out of the kitchen with a vase. “Peonies are very fragile; they can’t survive long without water.” She sets the flowers on the table in the room with my desk and Marina’s couch. It is Marina’s room now.
I check my handbag: my passport, which still smells of the printing press; an Aeroflot ticket, a glossy rectangular booklet with red carbon-paper pages; one hundred and thirty dollars, the allowed amount of currency for departees, exchanged yesterday in the vaulting emptiness of the central bank.
My suitcase is by the door; everything is ready. We awkwardly stand in the hallway, not knowing what to do.
“Well, let’s go,” says my mother.
“Where are you going without sitting down first?” snaps Marina. A superstition for a safe trip and the hope that a person who is leaving will return: everyone sits down for a minute, silently; the youngest gets up first.
My mother, Marina, and I sit on the couch in Marina’s room, Gris on the corner of the chair in front of the desk. My mother looks at me; Marina, with stage concentration, gazes at the flowers on the table; Gris stares at the floor. An ambulance—or a militia car—wails in the distance, the siren growing louder as it screeches around the turn and races past our windows.
Marina motions for me to get up. We crowd in the hallway, our shoulders bumping, keys clanging, doors swaying open. A meaningless commotion, a spurt of last-minute chaos.
Gris lifts my suitcase and carries it out to the elevator.
In the courtyard, where children from my old nursery school are playing in the sandbox, I look up at the square of the sky, at the fleet of burly white clouds casting a temporary shadow. A girl with two skinny braids stops her sandbox digging and gazes at the circle of the sun glowing through the cotton cloud.
Gris loads my suitcase into the trunk and opens the car doors for us. My mother, as the oldest, sits in the front. Gris slowly drives past the playground and pulls through the courtyard archway into the street.
With one hand on the wheel, he weaves around trolleys and trucks in the unmarked width of Moskovsky Prospekt. People line up at the bus stops, emerge from grocery stores, their arms weighed down by string bags. Children hold their parents’ hands on their way to libraries and piano lessons. A usual Tuesday afternoon.
The massive buildings lining the avenue change to matchbox apartment complexes and then to barren fields dotted with commercial hothouses. “Summer,” a big sign reads, the name of a vegetable factory that occasionally produces lines of people waiting for watery cucumbers and stalks of yellow dill. When the sign fades in the distance, the road swerves to the right, where the international wing of Pulkovo Airport looms on the horizon.
Nina is already there to see me off, a fan of customs declarations in her hands. I fill in the required items to declare: a gold wedding band, the silver bracelet I received from the British boy Kevin when I worked as a tour guide in the ninth grade, a bank exchange receipt for one hundred and thirty dollars. The international terminal is dark and cramped, a small wing walled off for a few foreign flights. I squint at the customs declaration, trying to make out the tiny letters that warn me against exporting rubles, precious metals, and works of art.
“Check-in begins for a flight to Moscow to connect with flight number 37 to Washington,” a voice drones from a loudspeaker, muffled as if underwater. Since the invasion of Afghanistan, Aeroflot hasn’t been allowed to land in New York, so Robert said he would borrow a car from his friend, the same friend who lent him the wedding suit, and drive to Washington to meet me. “The passengers are asked to clear customs at this time.”
“Already?” asks Mama and looks around, her usual pre-departure surveying glance, as if we were surrounded by scores of string bags. “It’s still so early …”
“Well, you better go,” says Marina. “Who knows how long it’ll take those bastards to nose through your suitcase.”
Gris lifts my bag and wraps his arm around me, pressing his cheek to my ear. “Schastlivo,” he says, releasing his embrace and winking. “Good luck to you. Find out how everything is there, really.”
A Spanish student who is part of a visiting tour, his size doubled by his backpack, sideswipes Marina as she hugs me, and this jolt pulses through to me in a tighter embrace, in a firmer kiss. I press my face into her hair, which glows under the light, the color of the apricot jam she once brought from a theater tour of Armenia. “Write to us,” she says.
I look at Mama’s crumpled face and catch her gaze, open, like a fresh wound. She steps forward and I snuggle into her wet cheek. She smells of kitchen and mushrooms, the same familiar smell as years ago, when I got lost in the woods on a mushroom hunt, when the crunch of her footsteps led me to the safety of her embrace.
“Pishi,” she whispers, “promise to write often.” New tears swell in her eyes and spill over. “Are you sure you have everything?” she asks, swallowing and blinking. “Did you take the scarf I left out for you?” She swipes a finger under her eyes, folds her hot hands around mine, and I feel something small and heavy drop into my palm. “Take this with you. It’s your grandma’s watch, solid gold, French. They don’t make them anymore.”
I know that the law prohibits taking out of the country anything made before 1957, anything made in a foreign country, anything made of gold. But at this moment the law is as irrelevant as the visiting students with their machine-gun Spanish. I hold the watch in my palm, then drop it in the pocket of my jeans.
“We’ll come to visit you,” says Gris. “First we’ll send Mama, as soon as she’s done with the dacha and her apple jams. Then Marina will be next, and then we’ll all be there and you won’t know how to get rid of us.”
“Yeah,” I say and give Mama a smile. “I’ll start the paperwork as soon as I land.”
The current of the student group picks me up and carries me to the glass door, the border demarcation between us and the rest of the world. Behind it, in an automatic movement, a customs official in a gray uniform begins to riffle through my bag. I recognize him from my senior-year university lectures. He unwraps my bottles of perfume, one by one, lifts them up to the light, and stares at their contents. He opens my wallet and counts my money. He thumbs through the pages of my address book. A university graduate rummaging through luggage. He doesn’t recognize me, or pretends not to. Feeling the metal of the watch on my thigh, I look into his eyes, the deadened KGB eyes that can still, as long as I am in the international airport zone, drill right through my untrustworthy head, accuse me of being unpatriotic and delinquent, and order me to stay here. We stare at each other until he looks away—a philologist of Germanic languages busy analyzing underwear and socks—and pushes my violated suitcase off the belt.
When I finish repacking, I look back, at all of them clustered together before the glass door. Nina waves vigorously over my mother’s head. Gris stands next to her, his cap pushed over his forehead, his hands in his pockets. Marina is trying to shove in front of the guard, squeezing him out with her shoulder. I can only see a part of Mama, a small fragment of her face, her hand with a handkerchief blotting her eye.
If my father were alive, would he be standing next to her, waving me good-bye, reassuring me I won’t end up under a bridge? Or would he be fuming at a friend’s dacha, angry at my leaving, doing what he did when I was born? He was as stubborn as a goat, according to my mother, just like I am. I think of the dream I had about him when I was eight, in which he sat in his rowboat and spoke about theater, about the audience holding their breath and growing silent the moment before the curtain is about to go up. The anticipation of magic, he called it, the expectation of illusion. The moment when the noise stops. The moment you’re no longer ordinary.
I wonder whether in real life he knew anything about magic. Could he have recognized that moment, my unknown father?
“Walk forward, let’s go,” commands a border patrolwoman, pushing me toward a metal detector that doesn’t work. But we have to pretend it does, and I obediently step through the metal arch, benevolently silent. When I am done, the border woman turns to the two British-looking ladies in pantsuits, explaining to them with her hands that they must pretend, too.
I stand on the other side of the world, looking back, saying goodbye. I think of the bulky clouds chugging over the city toward the Baltic Sea, pausing over my courtyard. I think of pocked walls, windowsills covered with soot, crumbling stairs leading to doors permanently barred. I think of the dilapidated sandbox in the middle of the playground. On its ledge crouches a small girl with braids. I know that face: green eyes slightly slanted, betraying the drop of Tatar ancestry in every Russian; faint freckles, as if someone had splashed muddy water onto her skin.
She looks up at me, and the bows in her skinny braids flutter like butterflies. I squat next to her, but the freckles grow darker, a wave of pink floods her cheeks, and her slanted eyes evade mine. She is tense and distant, like the still lindens behind her, like this mute courtyard, like prematurely aged Leningrad. A flock of pigeons pecking at the dirt lift their wings and with a startling clatter rustle up to where the wind rattles over the rooftops. We sit there in the sandbox, on different sides of the world, caught in a time warp—both waiting, both staring at the square of the courtyard sky and wondering what lies beyond it.
When I look back again, my family and friends are no longer visible. All I see through the horseshoe of the broken metal detector, all that is left of my country is a glare of glass.