days one must fly—but where to?
........................................— Pablo Neruda, XCVII, 100 Love Sonnets
Preparing to Fly at Night
Three months before the fall of the Soviet Union in May of 1991, I watch the hooded crows that circle above the housing projects outside of Moscow. In the predawn sky, the pearl-gray bodies of the birds flash like small lights. I’ve been traveling with Irina, a woman I know from Paris, both of us descended from Russian Jewry. We are the first in our families to return to this place we think of as a homeland, though for her father and my grandparents, it was a point of departure, a place they left without looking back. We’ve come here to fulfill some kind of ancestral errand in an attempt to complete a journey started by someone else, in search of something we never lost, but which we feel responsible for finding. Of course, no one has told us exactly what we’re supposed to find, or where to look, but for Irina and me the act of return?to the place where that something was lost?seems like the first step. It would be easier to be a salmon, I think, the map of birthplace inscribed in body and brain, the homecoming a genetic necessity instead of some vague notion handed down by relatives who never r eally discussed the reasons for their departure.
Irina wears her dark hair short, which accentuates her profile. Her eyes are dark too. We’ve been thrown together by a mutual association, a man who said to me, “Oh, you must meet Irina,” and to her, “Oh, you must meet Kim.” And so we’ve met and discovered in one another what our friend saw: a passion for the visual, which Irina records in photographs and I preserve with words, a preoccupation for the pasts of our respective families, and the urge to go back to a motherland we’ve romanticized, to look for something we think has been lost.
We haven’t found it. Not only that, but tensions exacerbated by sharing close quarters and eating starchy food have escalated to the point where Irina and I have lost our ability to talk to one another about anything more than our basic impressions of where we are or how to get from one place to the next. “It’s a bit chilly today,” one of us says so politely I feel nauseous. “Don’t you think we ought to take a left onto this avenue?” the other asks as we emerge from a subway station.
Now we’re standing here at dawn, discussing the last leg of this journey, the trip to the airport. I look to the sky, as if the promise of sunrise in Moscow could change anything. As if morning might reveal that our suitcases?packed with books and caviar and lacquered boxes?are filled not with the trappings of a visitor, but with something else. Something we couldn’t locate in stores where the clerks remove books from locked glass cases. Something we couldn’t purchase on the street where black marketeers open long overcoats to display the wares pinned inside (lacquer jewelry, jars of sturgeon roe, Soviet watches). That something is as vague and unreliable as our reasons for being in Moscow. I’m beginning to suspect that what we’re looking for is merely a feeling, a taste, a smell?some sensory confirmation that Russia holds our origins.
The gifts we’ve bought and the rolls of film in our bags make for the only tangible evidence of our having been here. Otherwise, there is nothing but the record of memory, and I know already as I wait here and watch the hooded crows that I’ll remember Moscow in terms of flight. But in my notebooks I’ve scribbled words and impressions: food I tried for the first time (pickled garlic, caviar), the odor of spring that almost surfaced, the line for McDonald’s. But there is nothing in those pages about wings or birds or ascent, and I will not think of such things until this trip has become a decade-old memory.
Irina and I already have two different accounts of this trip.
“I brought you to Moscow,” Irina says, “I introduced you to my friends, and you monopolized the relationships.”
We came here together; Moscow was on the itinerary we both designed. I don’t say that; instead, I try to explain that all I did was be myself, try to talk with people, ask them questions. But I know that every time I engaged in conversation, proffered an opinion or responded with a less-than-ordinary, unexpected-for-an-American perspective (in other words, not mainstream media or political propaganda), Irina would give me that daggered, you’re-always-on-some-other-side look, and I’d be silenced.
I look at her. You are volatile and possessive, I think, unable to vocalize these words, allowing the sentiment that accompanies such a thought to swell inside me like a tumor whose only cure is removal.
The truth that I cannot point to yet, the crux of Irina’s resentment, is that I am the one who grew up speaking English. Like it or not—and despite our respective abilities to navigate in Russian (Irina being the more proficient of us both, neither of us as proficient as the English-speaking Russians we meet)—it is my mother tongue, not hers, that we use here. Fluency, including my fluency in French, defines the depth of relationship with everyone we meet, and Irina has had to rely on me. She is not used to being dependent.
The ways we capture how we see Moscow are also quite different. Her photographs freeze particular moments. A cabaret singer in a white cashmere sweater and dirty white go-go boots. The empty platform at a train station. She focuses on the subject inside the frame, whereas I wander beyond the periphery of these compositions, into a short poem about the remains of worn gold letters on dishes in the restaurant where the singer performed, or the family huddled together under the eaves of the station saying their good-byes before the traveler among them boards the train. These different ways of seeing the same thing define our relationship: Irina is within; I am without. I see in her a self-centeredness, a need to be in the spotlight; she perceives in me a lurk-on-the-edge quality that begs to place one toe, then the foot, finally the whole body, over the margin. In such a calculus, boundaries are transgressed. Someone will feel put out or put upon. There is no way around this.
Irina is talking with Slava and Galia and her husband Michail, three Russian Jews who have welcomed us in Moscow and with whom we have spent the last four days. It is true that Irina introduced me to Galia, whom she met in a Paris gallery and had coffee with, an encounter that ended with addresses exchanged on small pieces of paper and Galia’s invitation to visit in Moscow, should Irina ever come here. I stand slightly apart from them, crunch a piece of dirty ice with my boot, and listen to the plans to drive to the airport. I do not participate in the confirmation of these plans because, through an unspoken agreement that has to do with Galia being Irina’s “find,” this last leg of the journey is Irina’s responsibility. We have learned to take turns without saying “it’s your turn” and to accept the decisions made by the other, even when they make us bristle, which makes me feel as though we are an unhappily married couple. There are pieces of the conversation that I wish didn’t make sense.
“You will take Galia’s paintings out of Moscow,” Michail, Galia’s husband, says. His English is textbook perfect. “They are rolled up with posters of Lenin. If you should be asked questions by the customs people, you will reply that Galia’s paintings are merely wrappers protecting the images of Lenin.”
I find this strategy clever, but recognize that I’d have a tough time explaining anything if such a conversation occurred in Russian. I want to interrupt and ask for a translation, but I know I’ll forget it if I don’t write it down, and how natural would that be if, once at the airport, I took out a scrap of paper with a Russian script neatly printed on it?
It’s Slava who interrupts the discussion of The Plan. With his heavily-accented English that has, through practice with us, improved over the last several days, he asks, “My mufta—how you say?…” He looks to Irina. “Mufta?”
“Embrayage,” she says, looking at me.
“The car clutch?” I look at Slava. I’m taken aback that Irina knows this Russian word, and wonder if she and Slava have already struggled through the conversation we are about to have.
“My clutch…it is no very good, but no to worry,” he says, using his hands to indicate that it’s his car and he’s driving. In the pre-dawn light, his chiseled jaw seems to open and close in slow motion. Slava explains that if we leave at just the right time, he won’t have to slow down or stop the vehicle because all the lights will be green, one after another. “Travel at just right speed,” he adds. I picture his rusted Lada, a box with doors and wheels, the kind of car a child might draw, hurtling through the streets. But I’m unable to see myself in the back seat, nor can I imagine the laughter this ride will provoke.
As I look up at the circling crows, Galia announces that she cannot come to the airport. “I would make for you impossible to pass through the customs. I am so nervous…a bad actor.” The other part of The Plan calls for Michail to accompany us instead, to watch as we pass through the gate, absently stroking his beard with one hand until he’s certain his wife’s paintings have not been confiscated. He’s a tall man, and the arms of his jacket are too short, his wrists exposed.
One of Galia’s watercolors is called “Preparing to Fly at Night.” With the precision of an architect, Galia has painted five rods, like those used for shower curtains. On each of these slim metallic poles hang pieces of paper?a sheet with paper airplane shapes cut out of it, another decorated with pale red crosses, several accordion-folded papers, and paper airplanes. These are not the paper airplanes of childhood, not the rapidly crimped and creased diversion that nose dives, the kind folded and offered by adults when all the cousins under the age of six start running around the living room during the wear-and-tear hour of a family gathering. Instead, these delicate models resemble slender stingrays, attempts at flight arrested by the loops that attach them to the poles. Galia made this painting only several months before we were to take it out of Moscow to Paris, knowing, perhaps, that she would not be flying at night or at dawn or even in the afternoon. Considering flight and preparing for it, but unable to depart. Maybe she intended this particular watercolor as a protective talisman for the rest of her work we were smuggling out, a postscript to all those years of painting that suggests how fragile and tenuous an idea on paper can be. Or perhaps this is Galia’s way of describing all the ways she imagined leaving Moscow, all the abandoned plans for flight carefully folded into her memory. Whatever compelled Galia to paint this watercolor confirms for me the feeling I’ve had all along during this trip, that I’m an imposter pretending to belong to a place that was never mine.
A rim of sun breaches the horizon. I’m not sure I like having agreed to this ride in a practically clutchless vehicle. But then, what choice do I have if I am to leave Moscow as scheduled? I’d prefer to take a taxi to the airport, yet I say nothing and climb into the car. Impulse always seems to defeat reason when one attempts to leave at the time of day when edges are not distinct. Besides, these particular arrangements are Irina’s to make, and she’d tell me it was rude to decline Slava’s generous offer to drive us. “They can barely afford gas,” she’d remind me in a tone that calls attention to my thoughtlessness. With the rolled-up paintings on my lap, I close my eyes.
Though I haven’t seen or heard anything about the unraveling of the Soviet Union, a line from a Richard Wright novel keeps scratching at the back of my mind. “Most of the decisive historic events that happen in the world,” he wrote in The Outsider, “are not known until after they have happened.” I consider these words, and how Red Square was conspicuously empty on the First of May, a national holiday in the communist world. Everything was locked up so tight it was nearly impossible to find a place to have tea. Irina and I had wandered through the empty streets, the giant Soviet banners of Lenin flapping against the vacant buildings in the wind.
“There’s no parade,” she observed, rather obviously, I thought.
“No speeches broadcast from the Kremlin,” I said, considering briefly that she might think what I was saying was also obvious. “I feel like I’m waiting for something to happen,” with the anticipation lodging in the small of the back as vague tension, the kind that creeps in when danger approaches from behind.
We both knew that nothing was really wrong, nor was anything really right, which described as well the state of our deteriorating friendship. And we understood the known-yet-unknown state of affairs as if our consciousness was fused, and it was this manner of understanding that had drawn Irina and me together in the first place. This fusion of thinking would also drive us apart, as if there weren’t enough space in the same perception for both of us.
Waiting in the car for Slava and Irina and Michail, I open my eyes to the hooded crows. What are those birds looking for at this hour when the edge of a building is undefined? Anything, I guess. The unending gray feels like a shroud that cloaks not only the mantles of the circling birds, but the pedestrian coat and cloth, grime-streaked windows, and ashen puddles.
The Italians say they invented the sun. Where did I hear that line? Why does it surface now as I prepare to leave Moscow, where I’ve come with longing not for bright sun, but for something else?
Under the concrete brow of the Muscovite housing projects at dawn, the daring movement of color?not the sun or its inventor?answers my question. In the grizzle of this lingering winter, I suddenly understand Chagall’s lovers floating above the village, his fiddlers perched on rooftops, how he was able to merge animal and human forms. And who better than Chagall, a poor Russian Jew whose father disapproved of his son’s choice to make art, to declare that the color of a cloudless sky at twilight or dawn is the blue requisite for flight? And then I consider a Kandinsky painting called Moscow 1, how red and periwinkle and yellow fracture and unify that particular canvas, a picture of an exciting and turbulent city whose sky is incised with the black V’s of birds and where color itself provides light. Such vibrant tones they set down, these two painters, as if they were challenging the ambivalence of a Russia whose legacy of royalty and feudalism (and the gilded trappings) would be squeezed into the dream of classlessness inherent in the communist vision of the Soviet Union. Did they watch hooded crows circling in a muddied spring dawn and decide to fashion their own suns? “Color,” Kandinsky wrote, “is the power which directly influences the soul.” This from a man who had abandoned a career as a successful lawyer and economist to paint.
I turn my face to the car window, where the sun is just beginning to warm the glass. Galia’s paintings belong not to the Soviet state, as she had explained while rolling them up with the Lenin posters, but to a biography of color. In this narrative, she is a granddaughter who has inherited the urge to fly from Chagall, along with the certitude of Kandinsky’s geometry. Yet the colors Galia uses are slate blues, olive greens, and the palest reds. Perhaps she hasn’t discovered yet how to unfold the legacy of color that belongs to her. As the hooded crows circle and the sky lightens, it occurs to me that she may not be ready for such a bright and honest palette. Flight and its geometry preoccupy Galia as much as her love of and resistance to an ambiguous homeland, a gray that she can tint, dress up in the garb of flight, but which she cannot leave.
Batman in Moscow
Six-foot dolls crowd the studio of Galia’s friend Lena. She wears leather pants and tells us that her creations speak to the secret children in adults. Irina, who is here with her camera (looking for a picture that she will never find) smiles and takes a photograph. As she positions her eye over the viewfinder, I wonder if she might hear the lullaby voice of Okoudjava singing a song her father played on his little tape recorder long after he had departed from Russia. “Painters,” the singer implores, “dip your brushes in the tumult…and in the dawn.”
Irina’s father died many years ago and never returned to Russia once he settled in Paris. Now here is Irina, who would have been Moscow’s daughter if circumstance had been altered, her feet barely touching the soil of the motherland, her finger about to release the shutter, her heart about to blink.
And here I sit, playing the American Jew who lives in Paris but has now come home, yearning as Irina does for the sound of Russian, the throaty, rolled cadences we both heard during childhood. Filling in the blanks with English as she fills them in with French. The people we speak with nod their heads, but I know they don’t understand our strange brew of vocabulary. It’s as if we’re held hostage by language, unable to negotiate an exchange. There’s no dictionary adequate to this experience of two daughters who return to a place they’ve never been to and didn’t come from and therefore could never have left. Yet something in both of us feels at home in this geography, longs for and somehow remembers—before we actually behold—the swirled onion domes and the buildings painted ochre, raspberry, teal…colors unexpected in architecture. Yet they seem perfect here, for they are the hues that saturate dreams, and they speak to me of an intense desire to overcome the long loneliness of winter.
Perhaps it’s some form of residual memory that works to make us think that we should engage in return, that story we tell ourselves about going home, a story as old as storytelling itself, as ingrained as the condition of nostalgia. What price, this ticket? The fact is that I’m not home at all; I’m merely standing on ground that’s been crossed in the past by strangers, some of whom were vaguely related to me. Yet during my entire stay in Moscow, the bottom of my feet tingle in a way I’ve never felt before, as if they were cold and hot and walking on stones that jut out of the ground. Does this sensation come from transferred memory (some DNA transcription I’ve inherited), or do the streets themselves pulse with a recall of who walked where and when? Do the streets remember? And how can language, with all its nuances and all the loss that belongs to translation, help us find what we don’t know we are looking for? It’s an impossible situation, I decide, to wait for some unnamed longing to be assuaged by a drench of color or the right photograph or the perfect word. The images and the language that Irina and I seek don’t exist here, and, I begin to suspect, we will depart empty-handed.
Lena serves the inevitable tea from the inevitable samovar that stands on a small table in a corner of the room. Inevitable, it seems to me, because of the real or imagined samovars in every Chekhov play I’ve ever seen or read, as if the afternoon tea service that endured even as Lenin came to power had an inherent right to be preserved across time and shifting political regimes and geographies. With the cups, Lena brings a lemon, a knife, and a chipped, rose-patterned dish that’s piled with sugared cranberries.
The dolls surround us, all with red mouths stretched into permanent smiles, corn-yellow shoulder-length hair, and pale skin daubed pink on the cheeks. These are not colors inherited from painters like Chagall or Kandinsky. Rather, the dolls remind me of some Aryan reverie gone awry, a small army of blonds, at the ready, but for what I have no idea. Looking at them for too long raises the hair on the back of my neck. I’m impatient to leave Lena’s studio, but it wouldn’t be polite, and besides, Irina and I are bound by our foreignness and prior agreement to circulate together. I sip my tea quietly, wondering what secret child would be attracted to such grotesque mannequins. I want to tell Lena that those who feel lost as children?and by this I mean severed from place, or understanding at an early age that home is always temporary?don’t harbor a secret child. Irina sets down the camera and stirs her tea. I eat a sugared cranberry, the confection smooth and sweet and powdery on the outside, tart and surprising in its liquidity inside. The tea, the candy, and the samovar belong here, in my sepia-toned inner picture of Russia, but the dolls seem out of place, as if child’s play?secret or otherwise?were something I cannot locate in this Soviet world.
And so how should I think of the thing I’d seen that morning through the hotel window, painted in white on the roof of the building below? A Batman insignia, an icon of my own after-school childhood, not big or flashy like the one Commissioner Gordon used to signal the superhero, projecting the image into the low clouds of Gotham City, but there anyway like a call for help. Who was calling for Batman in Moscow? And why? It couldn’t have been children who made that image, more likely that young adults, enamored of all things Western, painted it. I look around at the life-size dolls mounted on the walls, propped up against the windows, seated in chairs. When Irina came to the window to see the outline of bat wings, she remarked that American culture has no sense of boundary. “It spreads everywhere, like a cancer,” she said. I agreed with her, mostly to diffuse the growing tension between us, to quell my gut reaction that her comment was really directed at me. But also because I really agreed.
Now, sitting in Lena’s studio, I realize how much I’d like to signal Batman, watch him crash through the window and destroy these dolls, rescue me from the clutches of bad art and spoiled friendship. (“Holy mannequins, Batman,” I hear Robin say as superhero and protégé stand on the broken glass, their capes settling with a crinkle). What a waste of time that would be: Lena would just make more six-foot creatures, and in less than a year her studio would be filled with them again. But I imagine the scene anyway, Batman with a red cape and speaking Russian, arriving in the nick of time.
“Comrades…” he says. Just the thought of that word coming from his mouth makes the fantasy vanish. Feeling like I might laugh, I pretend to hide a burp with the back of my hand.
Irina looks at me as if she’d like to slice me open with the pearl-handled knife balanced on the edge of the plate with the lemon.
“Would you like some vodka?” Lena asks.
I decline. There are no bat-eared masked men around, only six-foot dolls, a tall woman with big hands and leather pants, and Irina hiding behind her Leica.
And I am very far away from home, no more returned than when I first landed in Moscow.
The attraction between Slava and Irina starts when we arrive in Moscow, first a flashing back and forth of the eyes, then the practically tangible electrochemical heat produced as they stand next to each other. I know this flirtation means that I will barely be able to talk with Slava, and so I try to blend into the background.
He takes Irina and me to a Goya exhibit and I feel like the little sister tagging along on a date, instructed beforehand to be quiet and non-present. The small museum is almost empty and we can stand so close to the etchings that we might smell the paper if glass didn’t protect them. Goya had already lost his hearing when he completed this series, Desastres de la Guerra, which would not be printed until after he died. My great grandmother, who was deaf, always said she’d rather have been blind, that the silence she inhabited was desolate, and she longed to hear the music she danced to, music whose vibrations she sensed in her feet. In front of these etchings by Goya, I wonder if deafness sharpened his eye, or if it moved him to feel and depict a more profound loneliness. Or did it do both?
We face an image that shows three figures, a soldier initiating the rape of a young woman, who digs her fingers into his face while burying her head in his opposite shoulder, and an old woman raising a dagger behind the man’s back. Because of his tall fur-like hat, the soldier resembles a Cossack, though Desastres de la Guerra documented Napoleon’s invasion of Portugal and Spain during the Peninsular War of 1808-1814. In spite of the mismatched geography and time, the likeness between the French soldier and a Cossack, along with the subject matter, situates this particular picture for me in the Czarist Russia of my grandparents, who lived at the time of the pogroms, when the rape of women by soldiers occurred so frequently that Jewish families hid their daughters in pickle barrels.
The title of this particular etching, “No Quieren”?“They Do Not Want To”?seems odd in its use of the third person plural. Though the action is suspended and the characters have not opened their mouths to demand or protest, there is something very auditory in this etching, something vernacular in the expression they do not want to, something fill-in-the-blank about it. I can almost hear the crumple of the young woman’s billowy dress against the soldier’s coarse uniform, can almost hear the light step taken by the old woman before she moves forward with the raised knife.
As I puzzle out what Goya may have meant by the title, I overhear Slava asking Irina, “Maybe you consider marriage me...so I can leave this place?”
She does not answer, and I suspect that she does not want to. I wonder if Slava thinks she is feigning deafness. The creases in the corners of his eyes wet up, and I imagine him moved to tears by the strength and insistence of Irina’s profile. I know better: for Slava the Russian Jew, there are only two choices where flight is concerned?immigrate to Israel or marry a foreign-born Jew.
Perhaps, though, he thinks Irina hasn’t fully understood his question, which he has asked in his imperfect English. Maybe he feels as if he’s used the wrong part of speech or an incorrect verb. Here at the museum, Irina and I have abandoned our dictionary and wander instead through the language with spontaneity and gesture, looking at the ceiling when we cannot remember a word. It’s not that Irina wouldn’t accommodate Slava’s departure, but that she cannot visualize his arrival in her world. She is a private woman who lives with a dog named Pushkin. Her bathroom serves as a darkroom more often than not, and there is no space on her shelves for the books or belongings of another. Even her friends do not just drop over; she expects them to call at least a week ahead and make a date.
Is that what Goya was after with this etching?making us feel as if we are intruders? The empty space between Slava’s question and Irina’s silence lingers and expands, and I cannot dissolve it even when I exhale loud enough for them to hear.
Galia invites us to her place to celebrate our last night in Moscow. Two of her neighbors, a young man and a young woman, join us and bring a guitar. We sit around the kitchen table, Lena at one corner with a vodka in her large hand, Slava at another corner staring out the window. Michail washes glasses, holding each one up to the light for inspection. Galia passes out dishes and little forks. Irina fiddles with her camera.
The tension between Irina and me erupted this morning in our hotel room. I was glad for it, in that way of being relieved when things come to a head and you think the air will clear.
“You intrude on my friendships,” she said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“You know exactly what I mean. First, Galia. All your questions about art. Then Slava. I see how you look at him.”
“Irina, I honestly don’t…”
I was looking out the window as I said this, at the white Batman insignia sketched on the black tar-papered rooftop. The drawing seemed to have faded over the last few days.
“You are lying. You know exactly what I’m talking about. Ever since we got here, you’ve tried to be close to Galia, offering to make a connection for her in New York, or to translate a catalog. Ever since we came to the Soviet Union, in fact, you’ve always tried to talk to people I was interested in.”
“Irina, I’m the one whose language is used here. I was merely acting as an interpreter for both of us. And I thought if I talked to Galia, it’d give you some time alone with Slava.”
Two people appeared on the rooftop, with buckets and mops. I wanted to bang on the window, smash the glass really, and yell “Stop!” Though what I wanted felt absurd to me, I wanted that Batman signal to stay right where it was, a perennial call for help.
“I don’t need you to organize my relationships,” Irina said.
“I wasn’t organizing anything. I was only trying…”
“You think because you’re Jewish, like me or like Galia or Slava, that we’re supposed to automatically like and protect one another. Let me tell you something—you’re an American Jew, which gives you a different attitude, a different way of walking through the world. For us Europeans, it’s quite different, and not something you’ll ever understand, no matter how many questions you ask.”
Sitting in Galia’s kitchen, I can barely look at Irina without clenching my jaw.
“You know Vladimir Vysotsky?” the young man asks in English. “He is dead but I play for you his songs. He is like a hero.” He tunes the steel-string guitar, plucks a rapid, folksy melody, and then stops to eat a pickled tomato.
Slava raises his head. “Vysotsky was…how you say? Bard, like Okoudjava. He played Hamlet.”
The Bard who played the Prince of Denmark? I usually resist such lofty metaphors, suspicious of how they reside in a collective memory nostalgic for a time or movement that may or may not have existed. Maybe it’s the vodka, cool on my throat and warm in my chest, that allows me to believe what’s being said about this dead poet who resisted authority.
“Brezhnev once said that the air in Moscow would be more breathable if both Okoudjava and Vysotsky stopped breathing,” Galia says.
Irina smiles. Slava looks at her. I try to be as inconspicuous as possible. My teeth hurt. Since words have failed me up to this point, I do not say anything. But I wonder what it feels like for Irina, who is usually the beholder, the one whose eye takes things in and freezes them, to be beheld.
The young man begins to sing as though he was Vysotsky, his voice rough with cigarette smoke and a life lived mostly on the cold streets, an existence warmed with too much alcohol and made thin by too little to eat. I’ll learn later that evening how much he sounds like Vysotsky when Galia plays an old LP on an even older record player, the kind I had as a child. And before I see the hooded crows or the dawn, I’ll realize that this entire adventure in Moscow is nothing but an excursion into other people’s attempts at departure.
The young man plays a riff between verses.
“This song is called ‘Aborted Flight’,” his companion says. She leans over to tell me this, and she’s so close that I smell a salt dampness in her hair, as though she might have cried before coming here tonight.
In Galia’s kitchen, Slava and Michail pour vodka from bottles with no labels. Lena passes the jars of pickled garlic and tomatoes, as if dishing out the bounty of last summer’s garden. There’s practically no soil or greenery in these concrete suburbs of Moscow, but a century ago, there were probably vegetables growing here. I close my eyes, and for an instant, I’m in a kitchen warm with bodies and scented with sweat and vinegar, in a house that stood here one hundred summers past.
And the music of a dead poet—“like a Russian Bob Dylan,” the young man says—takes wing above the wooden roof of this imagined house and the abundance of the garden. In spite of the concrete that has replaced it.
Preparing to Fly at Dawn
The hooded crows perch and caw like sentinels. I think of Poe’s raven, an absurdity here. Or is it? I feel oddly comforted by the refrain nevermore, reminded that the business of returning to a place that doesn’t belong to me is impossible.
I want to ask Irina if she believes she’ll see Galia again, if she thinks she and Slava might marry, if there’s any chance we’ll recapture the excitement we had when we first made these plans to travel together to Russia. I know, however, that Irina and I will arrive in Paris and go our separate ways, that this trip to Moscow has dissolved whatever friendship we pretended, that we are pretending even now to not have failed.
What I don’t know is that once I’m home in my small apartment in Paris, I’ll listen to news on the radio about the collapse of the Soviet Union. By September, after the August coup, after Gorbachev is placed under house arrest and then released, I’ll write to a friend and quote Richard Wright. “I stood on the edge of History,” I’ll tell anyone who’ll listen, though I won’t be sure of what that means exactly. For weeks after I leave Moscow, I’ll dream of Russia. Not this Russia that I’m leaving at dawn, but a place pieced together from swatches of Chagall’s blue, inevitable samovars, and the amber tones of etchings that transgress temporal and physical borders. I’ll scribble small notes to myself, to remember, for example, the pigeons at the monastery at Zagorsk, and the old, bent woman in black who fed them.
The sun bleeds into my eyes as I watch Galia wave goodbye.
Galia of the walnut hair cut at a slant just above her jaw. Galia with a plum sweater over a chartreuse turtleneck and a cobalt skirt that falls to her ankles. Galia dressed in the speaking tongues of watercolors she has yet to paint. As the car pulls away, I wave back. Galia’s hand recedes, then fades.
Slava drives, sailing through every intersection, all the lights green as he’d predicted. Irina rides shotgun, and I see a lightness, a buoyancy in the back of her head that I don’t expect, but which allows me to relax my jaw, and gives me a vague hope that we might repair what is broken between us, if not now, perhaps in years to come. And if not as two women brought together by a hopeless nostalgia, then perhaps as two who live apart, separated by time and space, but joined because we journeyed here together. The streets of Moscow are empty at dawn, and we laugh all the way to the airport.