FOR THE THREE MONTHS before our scheduled wedding, I’m not planning anything because I don’t believe it is really going to happen. In my mind, I’ve played out everything that could go wrong: Robert will come to his senses; the Soviet Embassy will refuse to issue a visa on learning that he’s going to marry a Soviet citizen; the border patrol will seize and detain him the moment he steps onto Soviet soil.
I go to work as usual, teaching my classes and chatting with Natalia Borisovna as if nothing were about to happen. I ask her advice on facilitating conversational fluency, and she whispers the latest gossip about the department secretary, who is marrying a Georgian and moving to Tbilisi. I’m afraid to think what she would say if I told her that I am marrying an American and moving to Texas. She might say nothing; such an announcement would most likely choke her.
Am I really going to marry an American and move to Texas? I feel as I did when I was eleven, standing on a diving board just before they kicked me out of the district pool for my lack of swimming ability, with ten meters of void between my toes and the green water below, clear and hard as glass. I never had the guts to jump, but I’ve always wondered what it would have been like, taking that step forward, plummeting through the chlorine-smelling air, splattering into the water that would reluctantly part and swallow me and seal over my head in caps of white foam.
Some days I’m free from doubt, confident that I am indeed going to marry and move, that I am only a few months away from a new life. And some days I’m not so certain. Some days I have to look at myself in the mirror to make sure that this person who uses the words “America” and “marriage” in the same sentence is really me. Aside from convicts dressed in blue jeans, I know nothing about America. I know what is not likely to happen to me: I won’t be sleeping under a bridge, as my mother whispers to Marina in the kitchen; I won’t be begging on the street, as the news report announces Americans are forced to do—by whom? I won’t be doing any of the things we are warned against by our press and by posters with fat men in top hats trampling over the huddling workers in chains. I know all this is a lie. But what is the truth? The only thing I can tell so far is that those convicts in blue jeans don’t seem to have that bad a life.
But sometimes, at night, when I stand at a bus stop where the only light is an amber square from a first-floor window, and the wind rattles in the round metal drainpipes chained to the façades, I am frightened. I shiver at the silence, at the cold, wet, empty air, at the nothingness of the night. If nothingness exists here, where I know everything, what will I have there, where I really know nothing? Where the bus stops and the air and the drains and the night are all so different that I may not even recognize them at all.
I want to tell my mother or, even better, simply bury my face in her breasts as I did a long time ago when I got lost in the woods. But I am no longer ten and cannot seem weak and show how scared I am, especially to her. It would frighten her, too. It would confirm that she was right all along when she gave Robert a first hard look, when she wanted me to apply to medical school instead of the philology department, when she raised her eyebrow in disdain fifteen years ago hearing that I wanted to learn English.
TWO WEEKS BEFORE ROBERT’s arrival, the phone rings in my apartment, and I hear the voice of Boris, whom I met in the Crimea. In the last year we’ve talked on the phone only twice: I called him on his birthday, and he called me on mine. He was planning to go to Novy Svet again that August, and we reminisced about boiling mussels on the beach and stealing grapes from the collective farm that made exported champagne. I no longer feel a melting in my belly when I hear his voice; I no longer feel like dropping everything and rushing to join him wherever he is.
He is in Leningrad, he says.
In Leningrad? He has never come to Leningrad before, not when I sent him a telegram as my mother was walking out the door to spend a week with her sister in the provinces, not when I bribed a conductor in Simferopol to put an extra person on a train headed north. And now, when I didn’t beg or bribe, he is here.
Can I meet him somewhere in the center so we can go to a restaurant?
I am not sure which makes me more nervous—seeing Boris or going to a restaurant. In my entire life, I’ve eaten at a restaurant only once. A surly waitress, who looked as if Nina and I had personally insulted her by sitting down at her table, tossed down a ten-page menu, only to announce that they had nothing but beef stroganoff. It was stringy, lukewarm, and expensive, and we swore never to go to a restaurant again. It was not a sincere promise; we both knew there were other, more exclusive places that actually had food, places guarded by unflappable doormen towering pompously in front of “no seats available” signs.
“So, can we meet?” asks Boris, notes of impatience around the edges of his voice. Or maybe he isn’t impatient; maybe he is nervous, too. After all, I am the one who is sitting in my apartment, a marriage stamp soon to decorate my passport, while he is propping up the wall of some telephone booth with buckled rubber tile on the floor and a smell of urine in the air.
I put on the two best pieces of clothing I own: a pair of corduroy Levis a girl from my American class gave me last summer and a jacket of rough suede Marina brought me from her theater tour in Riga five years ago. The day is too cold for such a flimsy jacket, but it looks so much better than my wool-padded winter coat. I spit into a container with dry, caked mascara, which we sometimes also use as shoe polish, and drag a little plastic comb over my eyelashes. The mascara congeals in clumps, and I carefully break them with a sewing needle, separating the eyelashes so that they look as thick and long as those of any American woman.
I see Boris first when I elbow my way out of the Nevsky Prospekt metro station. He stands with his hands in the pockets of his jacket, his eyes blue as the Crimean sky. When he makes me out in the crowd, his lips stretch into a smile that three years ago would have stopped my heart.
“I got on the train as soon as I heard,” he says, taking me by the shoulders and kissing my cheek. “Natasha called me yesterday and told me.”
He sounds as if he were speaking of a disaster, a terrible accident that forced him to hop on the train and rush here. “Told you what?” I ask.
He peers at me to make sure I’m not joking. “That you’re marrying a foreigner and leaving.” His voice rises at the end, almost like a question. We’re walking along Nevsky Prospekt, two specks in its afternoon crowds, and for a few seconds I don’t say anything as I shoulder my way through a cluster of people getting ready to storm a bus, the air filled with the clang of faulty transmissions and the shriek of brakes. “That you’re marrying an American,” he says, the word amerikanets hissing out of his mouth the same way it hisses out of my mother’s.
I don’t know how Natasha from Kiev, who sighed and gave Boris sad, longing glances back in our Crimean cove, could’ve learned that I’m going to marry Robert and leave. I look at Boris and shrug, letting him know that Natasha was right, that I am indeed responsible for this catastrophe that required him to abandon his engineering duties in Kiev and race to Leningrad.
We walk a little longer without saying anything, absorbed in the street noise, in the clatter of buses, trolleys, and trucks, in the ferocious whistling from a militiaman trying to prevent a few girls from jaywalking. Then Boris stops in front of a door with the words “Kavkazsky Restaurant” written in big neon letters on the façade above it, one of those places where no one can get in.
Boris tells me to wait and walks over to the doorman. His hand fumbles in his pocket and then produces a red and white pack of Marlboros, something I’ve seen only once because it’s a black-market item, just like blue jeans and Grundig radios with frequencies reaching beyond our jamming range that can tune into the Voice of America and the BBC. Is there also a red ten-ruble note stuffed under the Marlboro pack? I can’t see from where I stand, but the doorman, whose silly uniform looks like it was dusted off from Gogol’s “Overcoat,” steps away and does what he has theoretically been put there to do, open the door. Boris extends his arm, inviting me to enter, a little smile glowing in his eyes, the usual Boris who is older and wiser and knows everything.
When we get to the dining room, it is nearly empty. Unoccupied tables with white tablecloths stand on gleaming parquet, a potted ficus tree behind a grand piano, an air of withered luxury more suited to a town in a Chekhov story than the first proletarian city on earth. A disinterested waiter in a white shirt and a black jacket with an oily stain on the sleeve unhurriedly crosses the room to bring the menus. I pretend to study rows of unfamiliar appetizers, but pretending is all I can do. Boris orders a bottle of champagne and, as the waiter drags his feet to set the table with glasses and napkins, sits back and stares at me, as if he’d been sitting in such restaurants his whole life, as if he hadn’t just spent his week’s salary on the pack of Marlboros and the bribe to get in.
I gaze back at him, and that’s what we do for a while, stare at each other. I don’t know why Boris is here. Beyond the August in the Crimea, I was always the one to initiate phone calls and trips to see him; I was the one who forced him to admit finally that I was too different from him, with all my Leningrad arrogance and cynicism and glorification of Western lifestyles gleaned from foreign books.
The waiter shuffles in with the champagne and Georgian appetizers and interrupts our staring. Boris nudges the plates toward me and instructs me to try the red beans with spices and chicken in walnut sauce, although I don’t know how, living in Kiev, he can be so familiar with Georgian cooking. We carry on a safe conversation about our Black Sea cove and the two border patrol boys who descended from their observation point on a hill, lured by our potatoes and our wine. When the champagne is finished, he orders a bottle of cognac. The waiter, his face scrunched in reproach that we are making him carry all those heavy trays, warily sets down plates with skewers of lamb and chicken tabaka, flavorful and spicy and so much unlike our own food. After a toast of cognac, Boris stops reminiscing about the Crimea and turns to my impending marriage.
“Why are you doing it?” he demands.
I am almost ready for this, so I pick up my cognac glass and drink what’s left in it, a honey-colored liquid that definitely—my mother was right—smells of bedbugs.
“You’re marrying an American and going to live in America,” he says, an accusation I cannot deny. “Don’t you realize they’ll never let you back?”
“They’ll let me back,” I say quickly, as if saying it would make it happen. “I still have my Russian passport. I’m not Jewish; I’m not emigrating to Israel.” If I were, it occurs to me, Boris wouldn’t be sitting at this table, plying me with Georgian food in a place I never dreamed I would see. I still remember his harangue about the Ukrainian Jews during the war, his bewilderment at how they marched to their own graves in Babi Yar. The present-day Jews who want to leave the country are ordered to surrender their passports and their nationality, so they can never return. “I’m still a Soviet citizen. They have to let me back.” I say this in a knowing, deliberate voice, but inside I’m not so cavalier. Will I really be able to come back to visit? Maybe Boris is right, after all. Why would they allow me to return, a traitor who took advantage of the university’s language labs and seminars in Chomskyan grammar, who learned everything there was to learn from books about a London she could never see, then turned around and married a foreigner and left?
But Boris doesn’t stop here. “And if you did return, do you know what would happen?” he says. It feels eerie, as though he could see through my skull and read my thoughts. “You’d be marked. No one would want to be around you. Even your closest friends.”
I gulp more cognac, but it only makes me dizzier. I’ll be vrag naroda, enemy of the people, just like Uncle Volya, my mother’s uncle who was arrested in 1937 and then shot—the time we don’t talk about, the time that makes sense only in the West, where they publish Solzhenitsyn.
“I still don’t understand why,” he says. “You graduated from a great university. You have a good teaching job. Your future is set. The department trusts you. Everybody trusts you. Why are you throwing it all away?” I don’t know if I want to continue this conversation about good jobs and trust. “Do you really want to live in a country where all they think about is money?” he goes on. I’m not sure where Boris learned this tidbit about America and money. Maybe he read Maxim Gorky’s The City of the Yellow Devil, about his visit to New York in the 1920s, when our writers were still allowed to travel abroad. “Here,” he says and stretches out his arm, presenting to me our dirty plates with bones and empty skewers, “we don’t count every kopek. Here if we party, we party.” He reaches for his glass and drinks all of its contents, as if teaching me an example of the proper partying etiquette. “Here our life is more than work and the stock market.”
“Actually,” I say, “it’s less. We don’t have a stock market.”
He leans back in his chair, failing to hear my remark or maybe simply ignoring it. “Our life here is about friendship and love,” he adds.
“Friendship, yes,” I say, “but not so much about love. You certainly didn’t seem to be in love with me.”
What I really want to tell him, what I’ve never been able to tell him, is how it felt when he didn’t move a finger to come to Leningrad to rescue me, even for a weekend. When I concocted plans and counted days and he didn’t. It felt humiliating. It felt like I’d turned loathsome and worthless, a worm inching across our dacha compost pile.
A woman in an apron lumbers out of the kitchen and begins to pile the dirty plates onto her forearm. Boris looks down, busy examining the stains on the tablecloth, and I now have a chance to hold in my gaze his face, already touched by the first Ukrainian sun and his hair falling over his forehead in soft, yellow strands. This is the face that compelled me to borrow fifty rubles from Nina and hop on a plane two months after we’d met in the Crimea, having lied to my mother that a linguistics professor had sent me to a conference in Kiev.
The waiter, a forced creepy smile on his face, sidles up with a bottle of Georgian wine we didn’t order, but Boris is too cocky to send it back, especially since he has just demonstrated the advantages of Russian partying. The bottle is opened and poured into chipped glasses, a syrupy red called Khvanchkara that the oily waiter proudly announces was the favorite wine of Stalin. For a minute, he stands over our table, as if waiting to be invited to salute our former leader, as if he doesn’t see that Boris frowns and stares at something stuck to the bottom of a glass, collecting thoughts for an important statement. When the waiter finally departs, Boris plants his elbows on the table and leans toward me. “Whatever you may think of me,” he says, “you’re making a mistake you’ll never undo. The biggest mistake of your life.”
“And why do you care?” I say. Stalin’s wine tastes like compote made from sweetened ink. “You never came to Leningrad before. I was the one who went to Kiev and then to Moscow when you were staying at your friends’ place, that communal mousetrap with no hot water.” A narrow, mothball-smelling corridor pops up in my mind, and a bony babushka with accusing eyes. “So what are you doing here, haranguing me about my mistakes? Maybe that was a mistake, coming to see you. Maybe the summer in Novy Svet was all there was supposed to be.”
I’m not sure why this tirade has tumbled out of my mouth because all this, as my mother says, is last year’s snow. In two weeks I’ll be married to Robert Ackerman, who resides in Austin, Texas, which makes Boris Kravchenko from Kiev, despite his blond hair and impossibly blue eyes, quite irrelevant. But is he? In all his sermonizing about collective trust, there are grains of something I’ve been thinking, little crumbs of truth that wake me up at night and make me lie in bed, listening to the breathing of my mother in the bed next to mine.
“Nu, nu,” says Boris, reaching across the table and covering my hand with his, benevolently granting me the right to be angry. “All I wanted to say is congratulations.” He grasps my ring finger, leans across the table, and touches it with his lips. “Congratulations and best wishes for a happy life and healthy children,” he says, the drunken words, like wet laundry, tangled in his mouth. He lets my finger go, reaches for the cognac bottle, still half full, then puts it back. “But they will never see Leningrad, your children,” he says. “No Hermitage or white nights. No bridges, no Kirov Theatre.”
Strangely, I’m sober enough not to get involved in a conversation about children. “Borya,” I say and lean across the table to get closer, “why are you here?”
He looks down and stares into his empty glass. For a few moments, it seems that he may answer my question, that he may stop lecturing about collectives, about the Hermitage and the Kirov. It seems he may finally admit that the August in Novy Svet, with its unfailing sun and turquoise light, has burned a mark into his soul, just as it has into mine.
Then his old, all-knowing face is back. “How about some chocolate?” he offers. “You must have chocolate before your wedding.”
He waves at the waiter, who unhurriedly reappears with a bar of chocolate peeking out of its foil wrapping, displayed on a serving dish as if it were an exotic cake. I get up as the waiter scurries over with a bill, which, I’m certain, contains things we didn’t order. But Boris, of course, is above doing the itemizing and the addition, something they would stoop to only in the money-obsessed West, which doesn’t know how to party or how to love. I rewrap the chocolate bar and take it with me because I don’t want the greedy waiter to have that, too.
We go out onto Nevsky. I am not sure what time it is, but it seems late, and we walk pointlessly along the canal, where the black water licks at the walls of the embankment. Icy wind whips in from the Neva and blows the fog out of my head. We walk past the Kirov, past the Theatre Square lampposts, their glow nestled in the lace of wrought iron. The last Intourist buses are pulling out of the square. Their passengers are on the way back to their hotels after a day in our museums and former churches, where guides instruct them to stay together, as if these uninhibited people in leather shoes could somehow be mistaken for one of us.
It is ironic, I think, that I’m walking with Boris around Leningrad now, two weeks before my marriage to someone else. This is what I’ve wanted to do since that August in the Crimea—dazzle him with Leningrad’s baroque balconies and marble statues and benches in the shade of linden trees; unfold before him the magic rug of avenues beaming out from the Neva toward the center of Nevsky and sparkling with the gold thread of spire needles. Parade in front of his eyes our fountains and our Bronze Horseman, our pearly domes of light-blue cathedrals and our wrought-iron fences sheltering the silent gardens where Pushkin composed poetry.
And although it isn’t beautiful now, on a freezing March night, when most windows are extinguished and the sidewalk is a porridge of dirty snow, I wonder if Boris is right and I am making a mistake. What city on earth can possibly trump Leningrad? I’m leaving a place people from all over the world come to see from the high-perched seats of their Intourist buses. I’m leaving the only place I know.
We stop on the corner to let a streetcar clang by, and Boris puts his arms around me. He holds me close, my face in his wool scarf, and we stand like this for a minute. It is dangerous to be so close to him, especially when we’ve just mixed champagne and cognac with Stalin’s wine, especially when this nostalgic walk has stirred up some sentimental questions in my head. Just as he starts to breathe into my ear, I wiggle out of his arms. “I have to go home,” I say, shaking my head as if to shake him off for good. “I’m glad you came to say good-bye.”
He looks at me, his eyes still a little glassy, trying to understand what has just happened. “Who is this amerikanets, anyway?” he asks.
“It doesn’t matter,” I say. “Just a nice guy. I have to go.”
His eyes are now focused and dark. He runs his fingers through my hair and steps back. “Good luck, silly girl,” he says, “in your America.”
Then he walks to the middle of the intersection to get me a cab. When a car appears, he flags it down with a V sign—the sign for double fare—and the taxi obediently stops where he’s standing. Boris’s figure is etched against the light green car—shoulders leaning forward, hair tossed by a wet, briny breeze.
I say good-bye and kiss him on the cheek. His cheek is stubbly and prickles mine, but for a few moments I stay pressed to his face. Then I give him a last kiss on the lips, salty and raw—the taste of the Black Sea, the taste of this windy night.
ROBERT ARRIVES ON MARCH 24. They detain him at the airport, but only to turn the pockets of his parka inside out and to spend a half-hour leafing through his address book. My phone number, I’m certain, is now registered at the Interior Ministry, but then, considering my English-speaking past, it has probably been in their files all along.
To meet Robert we arrive at the airport in a Volga that belongs to Marina’s friend Grigorii Isaakovich, Gris for short, who is almost bald and much older than Marina. After we wait for an hour, we see Robert’s head bobbing above the barrier that separates the Soviet Union from the West. He gives the glass door a push and crosses over to our side of the world. “Svolochi,” he mutters in Russian, zipping up his jacket—bastards. He doesn’t need to say anything else; we all know who the svolochi are.
I’m glad Robert’s mind is still on our zealous border guards, so I don’t have to think how to greet my husband-to-be, who has just flown from the other side of the world for our wedding. He shakes his head as if he were ridding himself of a bad dream as I smile an apologetic smile, although I wasn’t the one who demanded, or frisked, or intimidated; I wasn’t the one who made him reach for the Russian words we don’t use in the presence of my mother.
“Here, this will get you into a better mood,” says Gris, back in the car, as he pours champagne into four mismatched teacups he brought from home. “Here is a toast: to the two of you and to your life together. A better life.” We raise the teacups and drink the syrupy champagne, so cold the bubbles feel like needles of ice and make me numb.
SINCE ROBERT AND I are getting married in two days, we are allowed to stay in the apartment that belongs to my older half-sister Galya, my father’s daughter. It is in a new district an hour away from the center, a cluster of tall, dirty-white buildings with low ceilings, called Khrushchevki, built during Khrushchev’s reign, around 1960. The apartment is a co-op, and my father was able to buy it because he had connections. Galya is the only person I know who owns the place where she lives.
For the two weeks of Robert’s stay, Galya has agreed to move in with a friend, but not without the silent comment of compressed lips and a raised eyebrow. Her sentiments are shared by my mother and my aunt Muza, who arrived from Stankovo a week earlier. They all sit in our kitchen, pointing out how inappropriate it is for two people to live in one apartment prior to the moment the state pronounces them officially married. “You should’ve stayed here until the day after tomorrow,” says Aunt Muza in the soft, patient voice of a pedagogue, trying to teach me a belated lesson. In response, my mother throws up her arms, demonstrating that it is futile to fight against the decadent morals of the rotting West.
I think of Uncle Vova, who couldn’t come to the wedding, but who wouldn’t frown at my staying in an apartment with Robert the same way he didn’t care about Crimean Boris or my sleeping on the beach.
But there is a more important message Aunt Muza wants to drive through my head, her final attempt to shake me into sanity. “Maybe you could still find someone else to marry,” she continues wistfully, looking into my face with searching eyes. “A good Russian fellow.” She stresses the word “Russian,” which makes me think of my cousin Fedya, her middle son, who has just emerged from a three-day drinking binge. “We were born here,” coos Aunt Muza, “so what do we know about their Western life?” She exchanges glances with my mother, who shrugs to underscore the fact that we certainly know nothing. All my family, with the exception of my sister, wish the West had already collapsed, as our newspapers promise, so they wouldn’t have to deal with this scandalous wedding.
On the other hand, Marina, who now openly supports my foreign marriage, thinks the West is perfectly healthy and it is our country that needs surgical intervention. She spits emphatically when my mother unfolds Pravda on the kitchen table and makes my provincial aunt wince by telling the story of the last general election, when Marina and I crossed out Brezhnev, the only name on the ballot, and wrote in Sakharov with a blue ballpoint pen. She rolls her eyes and laughs a devilish laugh every time Muza asks Robert about the West or utters the words “inflation” and “apartheid.”
“Apartheid?” Robert squints in confusion. It doesn’t matter to my aunt that apartheid is happening on the other side of the world from America. The West is the West, no matter what continent. All capitalist vices here get entangled and rolled together, like mismatched threads of wool, into one hairy ball of international evil.
IN OUR TEMPORARY APARTMENT, Robert and I pretend we are getting married. We both know it’s a game, but it’s not quite a game because we have invited six real guests to the ceremony scheduled at the Acts of Marriage Palace in three hours. We both know it’s not quite a marriage, but a marriage nevertheless, for which he has brought a suit borrowed from a friend. He doesn’t own suits, he says proudly, putting on dark brown pants that are an inch too short.
I stand over Galya’s table ironing my wedding dress, made from sparkly polyester the color of lilac that wrinkles at the slightest touch. I bought the fabric at Gostinyi Dvor on Nevsky, and Marina stitched it into something she saw in a coverless fashion magazine left lying around her theater. We didn’t know if the magazine was published this month or even this year, but the girl in the picture looked experienced and worldly, just as I wished to look.
I glide the iron over the staticky fabric, feeling guilty that I’m not as deeply in love with Robert as the woman at the Acts of Marriage Palace assumed I was. I wish my knees had gone weak when I saw him walking toward our side of the world at the airport; I wish my gut melted when he kissed me hello. I wonder if in the deep corner of his soul he really is in love with me—that kind of love, exhausting and irrational, the kind that infected me for a year or two after I met Boris in the Crimea. Is that why Robert has taken so much trouble to arrange all this, to come here for the third time this year? Yet nothing is irrational about Robert; nothing is overwhelming or even spontaneous. I’ve never heard him spit out a real curse; I’ve never seen him blush. Having been through a number of our parties where a bottle of vodka for two is just a start, he’s not once stumbled in drunken stupor or even looked glassy-eyed. Maybe, in some strange way, he is like me, hoarding his feelings inside and locking them up against strangers’ eyes, as if they were precious logs of Hungarian salami or hard-to-get Finnish boots. Maybe we are so similar that he’ll promptly forget Karen the Slavic professor and we’ll spend our days reading Gogol’s Dead Souls together and practicing the palatalized consonants that elude every non-Russian speaker.
“He is simply a horse. He’s taking you out of here,” Nina said the other day. “So what do you care if it isn’t a real marriage? Count your blessings and enjoy the ride.”
I don’t really care that Robert still thinks of Karen. I’m glad I’m marrying him because I like his foreignness. I like that he represents the forbidden and the unknown, that his nationality makes people gasp. I like that Robert has lifted me above the collective and now I can be the opposite of what we are all here, cynical and meek. The opposite of what our souls have become, cleaved and schizophrenic. I can heal and fuse the two parts of me together—the real, hidden self and what I let others see. And Natalia Borisovna will never dare volunteer her slippery advice again, powerless to condemn me for rolling my r’s in a most un-British way. I like that I am no longer, as I was in Vera Pavlovna’s third grade, a yearning Pioneer vying for attention, a gold nugget to Zoya Churkina’s diamond.
I may even love Robert. When we first found ourselves in bed, we were both tentative, as if afraid to discover in each other something alien and ghastly. But the only foreign part of American sex turned out to be a supply of prophylactics.
“Do you know the story of a Soviet couple traveling to Cuba through Ireland?” Robert asks, as I stuff the condom wrapper into my purse so Galya won’t find it. “They had four hours in the Dublin airport. They’d learned the English word ‘protection’ for a condom and they asked the owner of a drugstore for protection. The owner called the police because he thought they were asking for political asylum, and they ended up in the police station.” Robert shakes his head, amused at the bad luck of the two heedless Soviets. “But do you see the irony?” he asks, chuckling. “Ireland is a Catholic country, so they don’t sell condoms. They will give you political asylum, but not a prophylactic.” I see the irony, but also wonder what happened to the Soviet couple after asking for prophylactics, let alone for political asylum. I wonder what’s going to happen to Robert and me.
Out of Galya’s first-floor window I stare at naked birch trees the color of the dirty snow on the ground, at a boy in valenki boots and an unbuttoned coat pulling an empty sled along a footpath. Robert, struggling to knot a tie that he also borrowed from a friend, looks toward where I’m looking, but the boy has already disappeared behind a corner. What is a boy, who should be in school, doing pulling a sled over the last patches of frail snow? What lie did he tell his mother when he left home?
I think of my imminent marriage as a play with a punch-line ending that is going to stun the English department of Leningrad University into near unconsciousness. A recent graduate is moving to America, students will whisper in the hallways, voices tinged with respect and envy. A young adjunct from the philology department has wiped out her future by marrying a capitalist, the dean will announce.
Then we will all play our usual game. Nina will pretend that she is shocked. Natalia Borisovna will pretend that she doesn’t know me. I will pretend that I’m sorry to leave.
WE STAND IN THE center of the wedding room of the Acts of Marriage Palace. In front of us is a woman in a red dress with a wide red ribbon across her chest, reciting a speech about the creation of a new society cell. The speech is modified for international marriages: there is no reference to our expected future contributions to Soviet society or to the cause of Communism. I was written off the list of trustworthy citizens three months ago, when we filled out the marriage application. “I wish you to live your life in the spirit of internationalism and friendship among all the peoples,” she says, a scolding note in her solemn voice, a dash of condemnation of a Soviet citizen who has chosen to marry a foreigner.
Behind us is a small flock of my relatives and close friends. This is probably the smallest wedding this vast room with its soaring pre-revolutionary ceiling has ever seen: besides my mother, my sisters Marina and Galya, and my provincial aunt, there is Nina, who is six months pregnant under her tent-like dress, her husband Rudik, my aunt Mila, who arrived from Minsk a day earlier, and behind her, as if hiding from the gaze of my family, Marina’s Gris in a navy suit.
Each sentence of the speech, which is delivered with grave pathos worthy of a Party Congress plenary, echoes in the crystal drops of a bronze chandelier, the only piece in this room untouched by the sure hand of Soviet design. The crystal drops click faintly, then fade to silence as the woman ends her speech and invites us to join her on the podium for the ring exchange and paper signing.
As I walk across the room, the polyester dress clings to my legs, making the sound New Year’s Bengal fireworks make, the spitting sound I’m sure everyone in this room can hear. The woman motions in the direction of a red velvet banner, hammer and sickle embroidered in gold thread. On the wall above the banner a sign reads, “Forward, toward the victory of communism!” The exclamation mark has partially come off and is hanging at an angle, like a collapsing drunk. She shows us to the place on the podium where she’s installed a box with the rings—the harvest of my trip to a special store where every citizen-to-be-married can buy two rings made of real gold with written proof from the Acts of Marriage Palace.
“You can exchange the rings,” the woman commands, and Robert picks up the smaller gold band. As I extend my right hand, he suddenly freezes and just stands there, making me freeze, too, making me instantly think that he has changed his mind and come to his senses.
“Which hand?” he whispers.
“The right one,” I whisper back, bewildered. What kind of question is this? Everyone wears a wedding ring on the right hand—everyone who could get a written proof from the Acts of Marriage Palace to buy one.
He pushes the ring up my finger and extends his right hand for me. Then we all file out of the grand wedding room into a less grand corridor where Nina’s husband, Rudik, is already pouring into glasses the two bottles of champagne included in the ceremony. I down my glass and someone else’s. Nina comes over and embraces me. Instead of the usual perfume, there is a new smell around her, a scent of ironed laundry and freshly made soup. “Good for you,” she says as her big stomach presses into my dress. “Congratulations.”
Then a photographer appears, herding us all onto the front stairway so he can arrange us on different levels according to the guests’ importance, as if we were coming down the marble steps. Robert and I are ordered to stand next to the carved banister, my family behind us, my friends above on the upstairs landing. The photographer, a short man in a wrinkled suit, runs between our group and the camera, perspiring, yelling instructions, pressing the air between his palms to tell us to stand closer.
I am grateful for all this commotion. I’m glad my aunt is lamenting the empty champagne bottles and not my failure to marry one of “our Russian fellows.” I’m glad my mother is worrying about the photo album and not about my leaving. I squeeze Robert’s hand as my aunt stretches her arms out to grab him by the shoulders and kiss him on the cheeks three times, a good Russian custom she is now bestowing on an undeserving foreigner. No matter what she thinks of American apartheid or of Robert, he is now family, and she has no choice but to apply to him the same generosity she applies to any in-law, in spite of his curly Jewish hair and his watch that sports the incomprehensible word “Seiko.”
At home, the refrigerator is packed with meat stew and a dozen salads. “We’re going in a taxi,” says my mother, pointing to two cabs idling by the entrance. She would prefer a white Volga provided by the Acts of Marriage Palace—two intertwined golden rings on the roof and a doll in a white dress on the hood—but that was where I drew the line.
“Where is your coat?” asks my mother with a frown. “You’ll get cold and get sick.” I don’t know where my coat is, just as I don’t know what they’ve done with my marriage certificate and my stamped passport, which are now much more crucial to my life than coats or any other warm things. Across the street, below the granite embankment, the zinc waters of the Neva churn around the stone pillars buttressing the Liteiny Bridge, the last chunks of ice dipping and rising in their flow like huge bobbins on invisible fishing lines. A gust of wind knifes in from the river; my mother, I reluctantly admit, was right about the coat.
In the backseat of the cab, Robert and I stare at our ringed hands. “In America it’s the left one,” he says, making me feel silly about the moment on the podium. “I wonder what that woman would’ve done if we’d put the rings on our left hands.”
Only someone who wasn’t born here could think of such a bizarre thing, such a deliberate flaunting of rules. But since I know we have different brains and Robert cannot understand how impossible this thought would be to any of us here, I pretend I am considering the option. “She’d probably say that as long as you are on Soviet soil, you must do things the Soviet way. The right way, you know,” I add and skew my eyes to see Robert’s reaction. “The right-handed way,” I say and we both giggle.
I look out the window at the façades fringed in slushy snow, at the yellow building with white columns, the railroad ticket office, and think of what happened here just a few days before. I know Robert would appreciate this story, a uniquely Russian scene that I describe to him in Russian. At around one in the afternoon, after I’d been standing in line for an hour to buy Aunt Mila a train ticket back to Minsk, two ticket sellers simultaneously barricaded their windows with handwritten signs, the word “lunch” scribbled on cardboard in purple indelible pencil. In front of me, an African man in a sheepskin coat—a foreign student from one of Leningrad’s schools—politely suggested that shutting two out of the three open windows for lunch when the queue curled out the front door might not be the most efficient way to serve the people. “They’re wasting their time in line instead of contributing to the society and the Five-Year Plan,” he said quietly, with a serious face, using correct, docile grammar. The crowd grew silent, a sea of white around a single dark face. Then one of the ticket-sellers shoved the “lunch” sign aside and leaned out of the window, her polyester bosom hanging over the counter. “We taught you Russian,” she barked, glaring at the African, stressing every word as if she were reading Lenin’s decree—a glare of condemnation for his well-fitting coat, for his quiet voice, for his otherness. “We taught you Russian, so now you shut up!”
I wiggle closer to Robert on the scratchy taxi seat. “So now you shut up,” I whisper into his ear, and he puts his arm around my shoulders. I taught him about Russia, and he gave me the power to leave it. He smells of the blue shampoo he brought with him, a cold, antiseptic smell. He smells of America and a different life.