The customs agents didn’t stop me. When I got off the plane in Moscow my ears were stopped up, and voices were distant and inconsequential as if I were underwater. The exchange program had sent a flustered, bespectacled middle-aged woman to meet us, the latest shipment of American idealists who’d signed on to spend three months as volunteers in provincial orphanages. I couldn’t hear the introductions offered by the others, who’d chatted across the aisles on the plane, kneeling on their seats and propping their loud, glowing faces on thick palms, casting glances at the anxious Midwesterners, who were pink, well fed, and about to become parents; at the corpulent, snoring Russian businessmen; at the svelte, disdainful Russian women returning from their shopping vacations in New York. One girl shook my hand and told me about the time she’d lived in a hotel in Africa where the water had given her split ends and a rash and she’d lost fifteen pounds. Her cheeks sagged over deep creases around her mouth, and her eyes suspended two dark, rough pouches of skin. I tried hard to focus my eyes; my lips were dry and heavy as bones. After counting us two or three times, the nervous woman herded us onto a tour bus in the airport parking lot. Everyone crowed that it wasn’t as cold as they’d expected, and a stout, gossipy blonde in a knit hat said “It’s way colder now in Minnesuta.”
Snow covered the ground like hair on a balding head, brown patches of hard earth staring up through the white. Slender birch trees, sprung from the ground haphazardly and as they chose, made a sparse forest speckled with rusted cars, discarded scrap metal, and lopsided, tin-roofed wooden shacks. We drove for miles through a sepia print landscape, passing dilapidated, deserted roadside kiosks placed randomly in the empty landscapes, advertising “MOPOÆEHOE”—ice cream. A man next to me asked my name. I told him that I couldn’t hear him; I had a fever of a hundred and one.
The bus crossed a moat-like stream surrounding a monolithic beige Holiday Inn stranded, like the kiosks, on a barren landscape. We piled out of the bus and into the hotel, where neon signs and pinging sounds wooed guests into a casino on the ground floor.
I collapsed into a deep white bed and slept until evening. When I emerged I was directed to the dining room, a dim grotto in the round, hollow center of the building. At a buffet I loaded my tray with a few pale, unappetizing dishes of cabbage and meat dumplings and took a seat next to a shy, narrow-faced man, one of the only Americans on the volunteer exchange program who spoke Russian fluently. Humanitarianism transcended linguistic barriers. Two American girls came over. They’d both joined the Peace Corps, fallen in love with native men, and helped them emigrate to the United States by embarking on marriages that would otherwise have seemed premature. Now they’d left the husbands alone at home; the husbands were traditional, third-world men, and they were angry.
Reeling with fever and jet lag, I drank four glasses of water and a glass of wine, hoping to extinguish the fire that had burned away my convictions. In my delirium I hardly remembered why I was there. A group of Russians, flushed with excitement at their imminent trips to America to volunteer at inner-city afterschool programs, brought their trays over. The wine had gone to my head and I introduced myself in vivacious Russian. There were three of them. Seryozha was tall, good-looking, with a square jaw, square shoulders, and small, bright eyes; Tanya was slight, with spiky hair and a wary, expectant look; Galya was round and radiant, with soft red curls and white skin. They were all Muscovites, all social workers, all laughing, smiling with a happiness as bright and abrupt as first love. Before I knew it I’d had two more glasses of wine and Galya was holding my hand in her plump white one, gazing into my eyes and smiling affectionately as Seryozha asked if we wanted to go to a club.
We went up to our rooms to change. I had heard that Russian women always dressed up, though my new friends had been in jeans and sweatshirts at dinner, so I put on plenty of makeup and a low-cut shirt, skin-tight jeans and high heels I’d brought specially for the occasion. The money belt distributed to all American participants fit neatly under the waistline of my pants.
We met in the lobby, where I found that several Americans had joined our group. It was snowing. We crowded onto the minibus that shuttled from the hotel to the center of Moscow.
Galya took my face in her hands and said, “Êpacaâèöa”—beauty. “Where is your het?” she asked. I took one out of my pocket and put it on.
The driver was playing Russian techno music, soaring, desperate, every song punctuated by two hard-won words: “Ëþáëþ,” I love, and “Äeâyøêà,” girl. We were let off on the corner of a wide, lit-up avenue that was like Paris on steroids. The buildings were old and grand, with puffed-out chests and neon rosettes at their feet. Tall women strode along the icy boulevard in stiletto heels and long fur coats, their faces immaculate masks. We trotted behind our guides, down a staircase marked “ÏEPEXOÄ,” into the sidewalk and under the street. Shifty-eyed youths congregated in the underpass, where a vendor sold liquor from a kiosk. Seryozha told us we’d buy beer, and demonstrated. One by one we bought large bottles of Siberian Corona. The vendor smiled when I said “Ïoæaëyécòa”—please. Seryozha tactfully suggested that we shouldn’t drink there, because we’d be pickpocketed. Back aboveground, we saw a policeman stop a black man and ask for his papers. I tried to look nonchalant, cringing when a woman from Texas took a swig of beer and exclaimed, “It’s so good!”
We wandered through Red Square, past the line of Christmas trees that stood guard around the Kremlin, past the coy painted domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral. We wandered down another avenue and turned onto a cobbled pedestrian street full of boutiques. I caught up to Seryozha.
“So, what’s this club we’re going to?” I asked.
“Its name is Samagonka.”
“What’s it like?”
“Oh, it’s very fun. Tonight is free entry until midnight. I think you like it.” He looked down at me. “It’s gay club.”
We walked a little farther. “How come we’re going to a gay club?” I asked. I’d assumed that Seryozha was straight; I thought I’d been flirting with him at dinner.
“Why? Because I am MSM!” He laughed, taking long strides. MSM, which stood for Men who have Sex with Men, was the term used in the epidemiology packets given to us by the program organizers.
“We don’t really say that in English,” I told him. “You should probably just say ‘I’m gay,’ or ‘I’m bisexual.’”
“I don’t need this name. I don’t want label myself,” he said. “I do this, that, what I want, but I don’t need say I’m gay.”
“Okay.” The others trailed behind us, laughing.
We rode an escalator down into a vaulted metro station whose curved walls loomed with mosaics of inflated, white-armed proletarians wielding farm implements and bread baskets. We got on the train, where I tried not to look American as I watched a blond boy from Idaho flirt ineptly with Galya. “She’s sassy,” he’d said on the minibus, “I like that.” He had a big American smile and soft, clean American hair, so unlike the oily, sodden hair of Russian men. Seryozha and Tanya were joking together in Russian, their eyes squinting with laughter. Suddenly Tanya had started to look like a lesbian, with her cropped hair and workman’s jeans. I couldn’t understand a thing they said, though they were standing beside me; their words ran together like paint in the rain. We came to our stop and went up another escalator, emerging on a dark street lined with dim, boxy apartment buildings and ungraced by streetlamps. My ears popped.
“Âîò Ìaøa!” Seryozha said—There’s Masha. A girl with a broad face and a sharp nose stood smiling on the corner. She greeted Seryozha, Tanya, and Galya in Russian and turned to us, still smiling, shy, as she was introduced. We walked down the blank street to a building distinguished only by a small group of young, laughing people standing outside.
“Is this it?” I asked Galya.
“Yes!” she said, extending the word like a bolt of satin and taking my arm.
The entrance of the club could have been the lobby of a university or a government building; the dimmed lights didn’t conceal the linoleum floors, and the walls were bare. Music emerged from a flight of stairs. We descended into a small space crowded with dancers. Two small, sturdy men with gelled hair and wicked grins danced in thongs on a stage, lip-synching and beckoning others to join them. Masha and I had walked arm in arm to the club, and now we went to the bar together. She spoke excellent English, once you made her.
“What’s the name of a Russian drink?” I asked her.
“Îòâepêa,” she said.
“What is it?”
“Vodka and orange juice.” I didn’t know yet that mixed drinks make Russian girls shy.
“How do you say it again?”
“Îòâepêa.” I repeated it and she corrected me, laughing like a country maiden in the early chapters of a Hardy novel. I pushed the O and the rolled R past my heavy tongue: otvyorka. She laughed sweetly and without irony at everything I said, the soft flesh of her cheeks yielding to the incursion of her lips, her thick, flawless white arms trembling like branches loaded with wet blossoms.
“I’m ready,” I said, and leaned over the bar. The bartender came over, laughing at me already. “Îäía oòâepêa, ïoæaëyéñòa!”
“Êaêoé?” He cupped his hand to his ear and grimaced comically.
I nodded vigorously. Masha ordered the same.
We talked about the town I was from, and about where we’d gone to school, and why I’d studied Russian, and about our jobs, but soon we were talking about men. I told her about my husband, and about how we’d been married for two years, ever since I was a junior in college.
“I had a boyfriend,” Masha said, “but—is over now.”
She smiled as if I’d congratulated her, and then looked at her knees. “He left me.”
“What happened?” I was too drunk to be as sympathetic as I wanted to be, but still my responses sounded scheduled, predetermined. I felt that we were already friends.
She looked back up at me and shrugged ineffably. “I slept with his friend.”
I laughed, trying to read her expression. Lust, expressed indiscreetly. “It happens.”
“I had fight with my boyfriend, and I went to his friend’s house. We were talking, then he…” She paused, searching for the right word. Galya was sitting on the stool beside her. Masha leaned over to her.
“Ãaëÿ, êaê ñêaçaòü 'íañèëîâaòü' ïo-aíãèéñêèé?” she asked.
“Rape,” Galya answered casually, and turned back to her conversation.
“He raped me,” Masha said. “Then my boyfriend came and found us, and his friend told him that we had sex. And then my boyfriend left me.”
“Did you tell your boyfriend what happened?” I asked, dumbfounded and dull with liquor.
“I try to call, but he does not answer. I should not have gone there.” She shrugged again, and then burst into animation. “You like to dance?”
“Yes,” I said. She took my arm just as Galya had, and pulled me into the center of the dance floor.
“It’s not your fault,” I told her as we pushed through the crowd. “You know it’s not your fault, right? It’s never your fault.“ I had been a rape crisis counselor in college. She smiled blankly. We started dancing. An old Madonna song was playing too loud for us to hear each other.
We danced far apart at first, inviting Seryozha and Galya and Tanya and the other Americans into our circle when they floated past. We shook our shoulders and clapped our hands, swaying and smiling across the space between us, until I shimmied closer and she put her arms on my shoulders and I put my hands around her waist, the way I used to dance at college parties with my girlfriends. Then our bodies were pressed together, and our cheeks were so close that I could feel her breath on my neck. We danced like this for what seemed like forever, as time dilated with uncertainty. The bad Ukrainian wine and the Siberian Coronas and the otvørki were still seeping into my blood, my fever had become euphoria, and I was far from home and from myself. My mouth could go anywhere. We were so close that the only thing left was a first kiss. I made my neck as long as I could, giving her more space on which to land. She breathed softly. I wanted to kiss her, to spread my lips against the hollow of her collarbone and pull, closing my eyes and devouring her. We were too close to look at each other; my only evidence was the motion of her body. It was desire; I had thought my time for desire was over.
She pulled back, smiled, and looked around; spotting someone, she slipped away from me like a fish through dense rushes, shining and silent. I was alone, suddenly awkward. I made my way through the club, trying to find her again. At the entrance to a cavernous hallway a man blocked my path, smiling mockingly and wagging a finger at me. I realized that only men were coming in and out. I went back to the dance floor and found the other Americans, who were taking shots at the bar and laughing raucously, telling stories. I took a stool next to a blonde man who remained, in his position and in his manner, on the fringes of the group.
“Have you been to Russia before?” I asked him.
“Yes, actually. I spent a year studying here in college, four years ago.”
“How was that?”
“It was good.” He paused for a moment. “I came back, didn’t I?” He was pleasant, with crooked teeth and glaucous eyes. “It was hard at first—they make you prove yourself to them. I was in an acting program, and I was the only foreigner. No one spoke to me for the first three months.”
“What did you have to do to get them to talk to you?”
“It was partly just time passing—they got used to me. And I had to show them that I was as serious, that I was ten times more serious than they were, that for every hour they worked I worked three. I practiced every monologue for hours, getting every vowel sound right in my mouth, memorizing every unfamiliar intonation, and finally I proved myself.” He ordered another shot. “And I started going out with a Russian girl in my program. She took me in, and bullied everyone into agreeing to speak to me.”
“What was it like to go out with a Russian girl?” Was Masha dancing with someone else in a dark corner of the club?
“Russian girls are very romantic. They spend their youth preparing for true love, expecting it to come even when everything around them seems to be proof that it doesn’t exist. They spend hours every day in front of the mirror, painting their faces and doing their hair. The girl I went out with was ashamed to have the lights on in bed, because by then she’d taken off her makeup. You should have seen her bathroom—it was like an arsenal.” Soused as he was, he maintained an actor’s diction.
“They do manage to be amazingly beautiful.”
“Yeah. All in the same way, you know? Their hair, too, it takes hours. They’re waiting for true love—they want to be ready when it comes. They starve themselves.”
“But they never find it?”
“No. They get married when they’re eighteen or nineteen, and it’s over almost as soon as it’s started. Their husbands are abusive, or alcoholics, or lose their jobs—or sometimes their husbands are just as romantic as they are, and it ends in simple disappointment. The girls decide it’s not true love and start to think their husbands aren’t real men, the kind of men they expected, and then they nag them and bully them till it’s time to divorce. My girlfriend would try to convince me to get her pregnant, and yell at me when I didn’t tell her what to do, or decide quick enough where we’d go that night, what we’d do or where we’d eat.”
The bartender had brought him another shot without asking, and he took it. The go-go boys had coaxed a few clubgoers onto the stage, and they were already nearly naked. One of the go-go boys was waving a yardstick, or the Russian equivalent.
“They don’t give up after the first divorce,” he continued. It was clear that this was not a new subject for him. “They see that as a terrible accident or bad luck, and they keep hoping. They sleep with all their male friends, and eventually they find another husband. It’s usually the second try that makes them give up. They don’t bother to get another divorce, and start eating all the vareniki they want, and they get fatter and fatter and older and older, until they turn into babushkas with plastic shopping bags and drooping faces and legs covered in varicose veins and stuffed into support hose like sausage in casing. The babushkas who elbow you out of the way when you get on the bus or when you’re on line at the bakery or the market, and who scold you when you’re not wearing a hat. Their husbands keel over dead when they’re fifty, and they’re alone—not that they care much.”
“What happened with your girlfriend?”
“We broke up when it was time for me to go home. Which was when I found out that she was having sex with my roommate. She got pregnant two months after I left. They’re already divorced, of course.”
The people on stage were naked now, taking measurements.
“I’m sorry.” Masha’s heart was already broken. But she spoke English; maybe I could get one of my friends to marry her, and she could come and live in America. I never wanted her to become a babushka; I wanted her firm white limbs to remain as they were.
“What about you? Have you been to Russia before?” he asked me.
“No, this is my first time.”
“How do you like it so far?”
“Oh, it’s incredible. I’ve never seen anything like it. Seems like it’s a difficult place, though.” The air around me seemed full of a cracking chorus of breaking hearts, of male fists raised against pallid female faces and girlish eyes slit with contempt. I was dizzy, still feverish.
“Yeah, it is. But it sucks you in. Everyone is struggling so hard to get what they think is theirs, trying for happiness even as they believe it’s impossible—it makes you want to test yourself, see how far you can get, prove that it’s possible to be happy after all. Of course in the end the effort makes you miserable. I had to come back.”
He’d left a bitter taste in my mouth. Had I imagined everything that had happened with Masha? Maybe that was just how Russian girls behaved. But I believed in true love, too. “Have you seen Seryozha and the others?” I asked.
“No, not for a while.”
“I’m going to go and look for them. Do you want to come?”
“That’s all right—I’m pretty settled in here.”
“I’ll see you in a minute, then.” I left him to his drunken reverie and made my way through the dancing crowds, checking every corner for the Russians. Finally, near the men-only room, I found the entrance to another, smaller dance floor, with a low ceiling hung with nets and red lights. At the far side of the room I saw Seryozha, Galya, Tanya, and Masha dancing to the blaring Russian techno. Galya spotted me and waved, her sweat-dampened red curls bouncing on her shoulders. She hugged me and kissed my cheek, and Masha smiled as if we were meeting for the first time.
Sophie Pinkham is a writer who lives in New York. Her work can also be found at www.3711atlantic.com.
© 2007 Swink, Inc.