In my late thirties, when for a short period I lived in Moscow, I sometimes wondered if there were too many words in the English language. Longing and desire, for instance: was it really necessary to have both? Couldn’t a single, flexible word suffice? Maybe want would work. Not need; that was different.
Having plenty of words at our disposal wasn’t doing Jack and myself much good, in any case. We were at an impasse—my word for it now, though back then I might’ve called it a checkpoint. Jack would’ve have named it a choice-point, I imagine. At any rate, although neither of us was skittish about talking, we couldn’t seem to find common verbal ground, and our conversations had grown increasingly fraught. My husband wanted a kid; I wanted to want one, which wasn’t the same thing. You like adventures, Jack kept saying. You’re a curious person; you’ve always been open to new experiences. Yes, I kept responding, but this isn’t an adventure we’re talking about. We can bail out of an adventure if it’s not right; we can’t do that with a kid. What do you mean by right? Jack kept asking, and though I tried, I couldn’t give him or myself a clear answer. Right as in natural? As in obvious? As in doable?
It was a day in Peredelkino—a visit to Zhenya’s dacha there, in the mid-1990s—that changed my perspective. Sure, there were too many words, but at crucial moments there might be none. And sometimes a word was both on and off the mark, and there was nothing to be done about it.
Zhenya was a friend of Jack’s. My husband had met him seven or eight years earlier in Helsinki, at a conference for public policy experts. I remember Jack telling me how some Russian journalist had made a claim that really irked him—how they’d sparred over it for a while and then, in a bar, gotten into one of those clear-the-air exchanges that turn potential antagonists into lifelong allies.
And I remember, too, the first time Zhenya came to our apartment in Washington. We’d invited a bunch of people for drinks. Zhenya brought with him a box of chocolates, the acrid smell of Russian cigarettes, and a quicksilver energy that didn’t let up the whole evening. Sometimes he used his cigarettes like small batons, conducting his words and jabbing the air for emphasis. Though his English wasn’t fluent, he was an exceptionally lively talker, full of trenchant observations about his nation’s crises. I loved the way he laughed, slightly doubled over, as if his stomach ached.
A variety of professionals were present that evening, Americans and Finns and Soviets—journalists, policy wonks, human rights activists—and Zhenya picked brains. It was evident he could tell exactly which individuals knew what they were talking about and which didn’t. The gathering happened to be mostly male; there was a fair bit of jockeying for center stage. With his easy charm, Zhenya captured everyone’s attention. He’d recently been elected a representative in the Congress of People’s Deputies, and at the end of the night, we toasted his new political career with champagne. A few of his Russian friends launched irony-larded kudos in his honor: Don’t forget us, comrade, now that you’re in power! Hey, no running dogs in our Congress! Don’t get lazy—we still need you to write your news columns. You’re not off the hook!
Zhenya took my measure as well as everyone else’s that evening, but unlike his compatriots, he was neither exaggeratedly polite nor indifferent to me. Whenever I tossed in my dime’s worth, he paid attention. I was working as a freelance book designer in those days, and Zhenya wanted to know what my rates were, what sort of clients I had, how I handled the ups and downs of self-employment. He was canny about such matters. Money, he said, definitely made the world go ’round—an English cliché he liked—“but in a wobbly way,” he added. He pronounced the phrase “vobbly vay” and performed an exaggerated spin-the-top with one hand, which made me laugh.
Throughout that evening, I was conscious of being out of my element. Jack was managing U.S.-Soviet initiatives for a big environmental organization. Each year, he made a half-dozen trips to Moscow and St. Petersburg, and he’d developed a wider circle of Russian and Finnish acquaintances than I’d realized. Daunted by the bilingual chatter, I didn’t talk much. Instead, I circulated our living room with plates of food and bottles of vodka, catching snatches of arguments and jokes.
At one point, Zhenya made his way to me through a haze of cigarette smoke. Taking my hands in his, he thanked me, with a sincerity I recognized as genuine, for inviting him.
You’re always welcome here, I told him. Just to hang out with the two of us, if you like.
He saw I meant it, and something vulnerable moved across his face. I sensed it had to do with his need for people with whom he wouldn’t have to engage in lengthy self-explanations.
Good, he said. I will, when I can.
At the end of the evening, as Jack and I were loading the dishwasher, I told him about my brief exchange with his friend. My husband nodded. Zhenya, he said, was a guy who worked constantly with words and didn’t like wasting them, especially with friends. What he most relished and missed was silence.
Soon after that evening came the ’91 coup in Moscow, Yeltsin’s ascent to power—everything na remont, as Russians say: undergoing reconstruction. By the mid-1990s, Muscovites no longer recognized the shape of their city, their jobs, their lives.
In my own life in Washington, too, things felt murky. From the start of my relationship with Jack a decade earlier, I’d had certain wishes: for plenty of breathing room, a reliable measure of playfulness, a loose-reined sense of security. Though I’d figured marriage would fulfill these desires, it seemed increasingly irrelevant to them. But was that in fact so? My chronic restlessness, a sense of looming entrapment—to what were they due, really? To Jack’s frequent comings and goings, his preoccupations with work? To the frequently tedious nature of my freelance assignments? Or to my ambivalence about the kid question?
Jack was waiting, I knew, for things to come clear to me, after which he assumed I’d say yes to parenthood. Inwardly I chafed under his patience. It allowed him to believe he had the upper hand—one of us, at least, knew what was best…. Still, I told myself, we were happy enough. Despite the tensions, there was a more-than-decent measure of goodwill and tenderness between us. No point lobbing more words at something that evidently resisted being voiced, at least for the time being.
Zhenya, meanwhile, made intermittent appearances in our lives.
By this time in his career, he was writing regularly for one of Moscow’s best independent newspapers. His beat was crime, everything from youth delinquency and prostitution to white-collar criminality. He wrote articles exposing corruption in the FSB—the state security apparatus—as well as human rights abuses by the Russian army in Chechnya. I marveled at the risks Zhenya took: his apartment was ransacked several times, and he received threatening phone calls. Once he began investigating links between the new capitalists and the old nomenklatura, he was often on the move, not only because his investigations demanded it but also for reasons of personal safety: he knew too much about certain powerful people. Now and then he vacated his apartment, rotating among friends’ homes to reduce his visibility.
Jack believed the safest place for Zhenya was probably the Russian White House, where the Congress convened. That changed, of course, after the 1993 constitutional crisis, when Yeltsin ordered his troops to storm the building. In 1994, Zhenya moved to his newspaper’s dacha in Peredelkino, a secluded village outside Moscow that was home to many well-known Russian writers, artists, and intellectuals. Not long after moving there, he came to the States to conduct interviews. One Saturday afternoon he showed up at our place, breathless after days of dashing around to meetings. As a member of the Yabloko party, he was now occupying a seat in the newly convened Russian Duma—subjecting himself to yet another spin on the political roulette wheel.
Zhenya and I sat on the sofa, Jack in a chair opposite us. As he filled us in on what he’d been doing since we’d seen him last, Zhenya leaned into me, and I put an arm around him. His body hummed with energy, yet he seemed terribly tired. At one point I smooched the side of his neck—a small, silly gesture—and Jack, watching, gave us both an indulgent smile. The moment seemed to release something in Zhenya.
You know, he said quietly, what I really want is to stay home in Peredelkino and work on my novel. It keeps getting interrupted. Everything else is happening so fast, there’s so much to do… but if I don’t finish the book, I’ll think of my life as wasted.
He’d once mentioned that he’d begun a work of fiction, but I hadn’t understood til then how important it was to him.
Why don’t you take a break from journalism? I asked.
As soon as I’d spoken, I realized how foolish my suggestion sounded. Zhenya fidgeted a little; I gave his shoulder a squeeze to communicate my chagrin.
I do want time to myself, he said, but I can’t take it now. This is my life.
He left us a few minutes later, heading off to yet another interview.
That night, awake after Jack had fallen asleep, I waged a little battle for my sense of authenticity. This is my life, Zhenya’d said. And mine? Freelancing took up at least fifty hours of each week. Full days off were rare for either Jack or myself. I longed to be seated at my drafting table, sketching not for clients but for myself. To no longer be thinking about typefaces and point sizes, headers and footers, cover images and blurbs, but simply to draw whatever I felt like. And what was stopping me? What was I whimpering about, for God’s sake—the fact that I didn’t have a national political and economic crisis like Russia’s to blame for sidetracking me?
Jack had in mind, I knew, a clear image of our future. But his salary wasn’t enough for the two of us to live on. Kid or no, I’d have to keep working, and my clients’ needs and schedules would always be aggressive and unpredictable. If I were stuck at home, freelancing and raising a child mainly on my own—Jack being quite likely to carry on with his frequent travels to Russia, not to mention his long hours in his office—then my drafting table would surely collect dust.
This is my life. I knew what Zhenya meant: for him, danger and unpredictability were inevitable. His private experience would forever be braided with Russia’s. Jack and I, in contrast, had cobbled together a life in which we didn’t have to worry about thugs breaking into our home, or getting blown up in war zones. In comparison to Zhenya’s, our path was straightforward.
In 1995, several months after Zhenya’s quick visit, Jack called me from Russia with a proposition. By this time, he was running his organization’s satellite office in Moscow. A new environmental project there required his presence on a longer-term basis; how would I feel about joining him in the Russian capital, for half a year or so? It’d be a chance for me to take a break from freelancing. And for us to reorient, as he put it.
He didn’t elaborate, but I quickly assented. Why not reorient, whatever that might mean? A change of pace would be good for us. While I wrapped things up at home—subletting our place, notifying clients and friends of my leave of absence—Jack rented us a small apartment forty-five minutes from Moscow’s center. He moved himself in, and I arrived a few weeks later, in mid-June, with several large suitcases and a set of teach-yourself-Russian cassettes.
Our new home was wallpapered, curtained, furnished, and carpeted entirely in brown. It had a lumpy bed, a capricious electric stove, and a bathroom that refused to look or feel clean after repeated dousings with disinfectants. The view out our windows was of countless apartment buildings, uniform in size and ugliness, along with several massive heating-ventilating units, vaguely Three Mile Island-ish. On the horizon we could make out two of the Stalin-era “Seven Sisters,” a set of gigantic, oddly menacing buildings that dominated central Moscow’s skyline.
I spent my first couple of weeks learning how to use the city’s metro. July arrived, unusually hot; despite the heat and dust, I took long walks each day. Moving along Moscow’s wide, noisy sidewalks, I often felt I was lodged in a bubble, transparent and invisible to others. I’d never used sunglasses at home, but took to wearing them here: they added to my sense of self-encapsulation.
Occasionally someone would approach me and ask a question in abrupt Russian. ThoughI’d mastered a few phrases, in response to most queries I stammered Ya ne znayu—I don’t know. After a while, once that phrase seemed inadequate, I started saying Ya ne ponimayu: I don’t understand. I certainly didn’t, and neither, it seemed, did anyone else. Shock therapy, privatization, loans for shares: around us echoed big words and phrases in bold-faced type, most of it jibberish to the average Russian. NA REMONT, shouted new billboards all over town. Russia was undergoing renovation, getting a makeover. But by whom, and to whose benefit? As for Jack’s and my reorientation, what would it yield?
My long walks in Moscow quickly taught me that if I had to cross a wide avenue, I’d be crazy to make a run for it. Too many vehicles—not just cars and buses but surprisingly agile trucks—hurtled at high speed along the city’s main thoroughfares. They’d never stop for a skittering pedestrian like me.
As I soon learned, pedestrians had to descend underground in order to cross Moscow’s main avenues. They’d enter something called a perekhod. One set of stairs would go down from the sidewalk into a subterranean passageway, invariably damp and dimly lit by overhead bulbs; another set of stairs would ascend from the passageway to the sidewalk on the opposite side. Sometimes the perekhod were short, so one could easily make out the proverbial light at the tunnel’s end. Others were so long that the opposite staircase was only a pale blotch.
In longer passageways, elderly Russian women frequently set up rickety card tables, creating impromptu mini-markets. Here the women hawked their wares, a mishmash of odd objects carted from their homes. Day after day I passed babushkhi bundled in wool sweaters in the dank, malodorous corridors, each old woman hoping to offload cups and saucers, glassware, candlesticks, sheet music, cigarettes, and books. Perestroika and demokratsiya had upended these citizens’ already precarious lives; unable to make ends meet, they were taking the contents of the past and putting them not in the trash but under the streets, for sale to the highest bidder.
One afternoon, resting after a long walk, I looked up the word perekhod. Among its synonyms were crossing, escape, and transition. Perhaps, I thought, the dim underground passageways were a no-man’s-land, subject to no rules, belonging to no one. Then it struck me that neither the brown-hued flat in which I was currently lodged nor the familiar one I’d left in the States was my home, and I was tunneling—crossing, transiting, escaping?—who knew where.
Jack, meanwhile, was putting out fires in his Moscow office.
Every day brought problems large and small: unreliable telephone systems, new Russian hires who didn’t know how a checking account worked, computer printers for which no replacement cartridges could be found. Watching my husband bustle through his days, I felt envy, admiration, and a growing impatience. Jack’s daily life had a structure; as for myself, whenever I confronted a blank piece of sketch paper, a question seemed to have been scrawled across it in invisible ink: What the hell are you doing here?
I sketched, tore up sketches, sketched some more. Distracted, I fled outdoors for aimless strolls from which I returned dust-coated. Behind sunglasses, I watched and listened to the Russians all around me while my mind doodled its perplexities. The walking was palliative. I didn’t have to design anything solid, wasn’t obliged to link images with text, needn’t come up with a cover. All I had to do was to rough out my thoughts while walking, then erase them if I wished.
In mid-August, Jack phoned Zhenya. We’d left him messages that hadn’t been returned and figured he was out of the country, which, as it turned out, he had been. When he finally answered Jack’s call, he recounted an accident he’d been in, near Grozny, while covering a story in Chechnya. A mine had gone off fairly close to him, and a concussion had forced his return to Peredelkino for some rest.
Come on out here for a visit, he ordered. I want to see you! Go to Kievskaya station on Saturday at noon, and take the train to Peredelkino. There’d be some other friends at the dacha, he added. He was throwing a little birthday party for himself: he’d just turned forty-five. Jack accepted the invitation eagerly, and I was glad for it. Zhenya’s party would provide some relief—from the city’s heat, if nothing else.
The appointed day rolled around, mercifully temperate. Before heading to the train station, we stopped at a Western supermarket, where Jack insisted on buying bottled water, a freshly roasted chicken, some bread and cheese, and a big box of cookies. I was irked—we were running late, we could just get a bouquet of flowers. Why cart all this stuff on the train?
You’ll see, Jack said. There won’t be anything to eat at the party. Just booze.
We arrived in Peredelkino in mid-afternoon, strolling from the village station along fir- and birch-shaded lanes to Zhenya’s dacha.
It was the kind of place I’d expected him to live in, ramshackle yet inviting, and as he walked up the short driveway toward us, waving both arms in greeting, Zhenya looked as I’d anticipated: happy, tired, and slightly distracted, as if listening for something just beyond earshot. He gave us each a bear hug and a kiss. It seemed he’d aged; he now looked closer to fifty-five than forty-five, with his straight, fine, salt-and-pepper hair and softly lined face. His skin reflected a diet of cigarettes, tea, and vodka. As he and Jack greeted one another, I noted the pleasure they took in their reunion. My husband had many acquaintances but few friends, and it heartened me to see him light up in Zhenya’s presence.
Seizing our hands as if we were two lost kids, our host led us to a picnic table around which sat a motley assortment of guests. Across from me, glass of scotch in hand, was a bureau chief from a U.S. news magazine; next to him sat his blonde girlfriend. With sweatshirts slung casually over their shoulders and tennis rackets at their feet, they looked dazzlingly American. At the table’s end were two policemen, both dressed in jeans. They were serving, we were told, not only as Zhenya’s informal bodyguards but also as sources for a story he was doing on white-collar crime.
Soon after our arrival, a member of the Russian Duma showed up. His name was Volodya, and he spoke good English. Next came a woman poet whose name I couldn’t catch; she lived in a dacha down the street and was accompanied by a friendly black dog. Rounding out the gathering were two young journalists whom Zhenya was evidently cultivating. One, Igor, was painfully shy; the other, Kirill, was dark-haired and dark-eyed, and talkative in both Russian and English. He wore a purple T-shirt and American jeans; I noticed their tight fit. Kirill, we soon learned, held a fairly high position on the staff of Zhenya’s newspaper.
Jack produced the food we’d bought, placing it on the table’s grimy plastic cloth. Now I saw why he’d insisted on making these purchases. The table was littered with plastic cups and bottles of alcohol (vodka, scotch, sweet Georgian wine, and cognac), but there was nothing to eat except for some small, mottled apples and a wedge of dubious yellow cheese. Someone had contributed a Swiss army knife that was doubling as corkscrew and apple peeler.
Seeing Jack’s offerings, Zhenya trotted toward the house, calling out thanks over his shoulder. Volodya pretended to be astonished. Food? he said to Jack. Why, we never touch the stuff! The Americans laughed; Igor delicately tore off the end of a loaf of bread.
I pursued Zhenya into a dingy, cramped kitchen.
Here, he said, quickly rinsing several plates and handing them to me. There’s more bread somewhere, I think—yes, here, and some sausage…
Rummaging, he loaded things onto a tray. I found paper napkins under a pile of newspapers, along with those little salt packets that are given with airline food: loot from a trip to the West. We headed toward the door. Then I paused.
Can I see the rest of your house? I asked.
Of course, said Zhenya, cocking his head leftward. This way—the living room first…
He put the tray down, and we stepped into a room whose corners were piled with books and papers. Along one wall slumped an old sofa. I gazed at two oil paintings hung high on the wall, Russian style.
Those, said Zhenya, were given to me by a well-known Russian artist. What we call the naive school. Good, aren’t they?
We stared upward, and the room grew suddenly still. Zhenya was focusing on the paintings with deep attention; in the quiet, I could hear the steady rasp of his breath, and the living room suddenly seemed vivid with unexpressed feeling. Then he lowered his gaze and proceeded ahead of me, through a nondescript bedroom, to his study. Unlike the other rooms, it was large, tidy, and spare, with a desk, a black leather sofa, and various pieces of equipment—a computer, television, VCR, and several cassette players. The late-afternoon light made the space glow. At least, I thought, Zhenya had got himself a genuine sanctuary, a writer’s room.
I prepare all my news articles in this room, he said. And I tape interviews for my TV show. Did Jack tell you about it?
Yes, I answered. You’ve got a great workspace here, Zhenya.
I do, he replied softly. You know, I moved out to Peredelkino so I’d have some quiet, but nothing’s ever like you think it will be. Everything takes so much… ah, well, it’s peaceful here. I’m getting things done.
He paused, lost to some inner digression. What about your novel?, I wanted to ask but didn’t, for Zhenya turned away as if anticipating my question. I followed him out the door, and we added our offerings to the table. The chicken was cut, sandwiches were made and passed around, glasses refilled, toasts offered. Zhenya told scary Chechnya jokes; the cops laughed. They’d heard plenty already, no doubt, and were unfazed.
The American couple left not long after Jack and I arrived; Igor said his goodbyes shortly thereafter.
I was gladdened by their departures. With fewer conversationalists, it was easier for me to understand the Russian talk around me. Daylight persisted, though by now it was six in the evening—this being Russia in full summer, when night arrived late. Soft rays of sunlight dappled the side of a wooden outbuilding close by, on which hung, improbably, a large black dartboard.
I sat next to Kirill and across from Volodya, who kept our glasses filled. At the other end of the table, Jack was immersed in discussion with Zhenya and the cops. The poet with the dog drifted between these two configurations. She spoke almost no English, so Kirill and Volodya translated for her.
Our conversation, which began with writers as its subject, progressed to gender differences and, finally, the social behaviors of American versus Russian women. Volodya, being older, was more assured than Kirill but lacked his younger colleague’s smoothness. Under his banter I sensed a keen, irrepressible loneliness. Kirill was the sort of provocateur who eventually loses his nerve, unable to sustain the necessary detachment. His dark brown eyes sought mine furtively—checking the temperature, gauging the distance—and when I chastised him for comments too close to insult or condescension, he blushed like a kid.
The sun’s slanting descent continued, and our glasses filled and emptied, though I noticed my own and Jack’s stayed mostly full. We were running out of steam. At one point I glanced at Jack, who rolled his eyes slightly—his signal for a change of pace.
Let’s play darts, he said. Zhenya, you got any darts?
Of course, Zhenya said, else why would I have a dartboard?
This is Russia, Jack said. Isn’t it more likely you have one or the other, but not both?
I, said Zhenya, always have both. Of whatever it is. Here are two darts, a little rusty, but they do work. Line up, everyone! We must do this before darkness arrives!
He made us form a queue facing the dartboard. Jack quickly established himself as the best player; Kirill ran a close second. Volodya had drunk too much to be of any use as a dart-thrower, but he provided a lively commentary on our playing styles. The two cops were surprisingly inept; Zhenya told them he hoped they were better marksmen.
I was aware, whenever my turn came up, that my jeans were unflatteringly loose. I’d lost weight since my arrival in Moscow, and my hair was growing out awkwardly. I didn’t feel in full possession of my body, and wondered if that fact communicated itself. I wished I’d worn a skirt, then felt foolish for wishing this, then vexed at feeling foolish.
Let’s boom the darts and take a walk, I said.
Boom? asked Zhenya, frowning.
It means stop, said Kirill. She’s losing, so she wants to stop.
But those two phenomena are unrelated, I said.
Whatever the lady says, he replied.
I’m losing, too, said Zhenya. We’re all losing, except Jack.
You’re right. Jack’s cleaning up, I said. He’s mopping the floor with us.
Zhenya pondered this. English is a very strange language, he said.
She means, Kirill explained, that Jack is winning by a large amount. And enjoying it, perhaps more than he should. Shall I serve as the lady’s interpreter for the rest of the afternoon?
I already understand her, said Zhenya.
He grasped my hand, pulling me to his side and cocking his head against mine. With our heads tilted together, we stood there like the pair of old buddies we weren’t. Then Zhenya’s arm moved from my shoulders to my waist, lightly, and as I felt him detach from me in that instant, I guessed at what he might be flashing onto: quick scenes from his childhood, a dacha somewhere in southern Russia, schoolmates at youth camp… all his earliest connections and certitudes, none reliable now.
Placing my hand over his, I squeezed it. Zhenya gave a short sigh, like a dog’s.
All right, then. Let’s boom this and take a walk, he said.
Kirill saluted him. Volodya grabbed a bottle, and we all took off.
The air was wonderfully fresh, the fading light a silvery dove-gray. We walked in shifting groups, chatting and smoking and occasionally singing bits of song in Russian and English. Zhenya’s dacha wasn’t among the most impressive; since Yeltsin’s ascent to power, Peredelkino had become a desirable outpost of monied Muscovites, so some dachas were built of brick or stucco instead of wood, and had well-tended lawns and garages. Still, we saw quite a few of the smaller, classic structures with gracefully ornamented windowsills and pitched roofs.
Zhenya headed us in the direction of a little bar whose name, he informed us, was Pushkin’s Belt. En route, we passed a modest two-story house. That one, said Zhenya, pointing, was where visiting writers stayed as guests. The house sat nestled among birch and fir trees, scarcely visible from the road. Imagining its bedrooms with wooden floors and white walls, each cozy room with its own desk, I fought off the urge to trot up the driveway, duck inside the house, and pull out my sketch pad and pencil. There’d be no sounds to distract me, nothing to fight off, no doubts or self-derogation to silence. Just blank paper and the dove-gray light.
We followed Zhenya into a dumpy courtyard, down a set of steps, through a fetid passageway, and into a bar, dimly lit by wall sconces, in which a dozen or so men sat drinking. They gave us bored looks, then returned to their conversations. Disco music thumped at low volume. Hanging from a nail on the wall behind the bar was a wide leather belt—a copy of Pushkin’s, presumably.
After we’d installed ourselves at a table, Zhenya rounded up beers and stale crackers. (Dinner, Jack whispered to me, so eat up.) A low-key hubbub filled the bar. I checked out, staring off into nowhere; when I returned mentally to the scene, it’d changed. Volodya had started to pick a fight, good-spirited but noisy, with Kirill; Jack and Zhenya were off in a corner, talking with the cops and the bartender. Then Volodya left to find the men’s room, leaving me with Kirill. Still not entirely connected to the proceedings, I blurted out a question I’d been entertaining for days.
So what would Anton Chekhov think about what’s going on in Russia today? He’s always been one of my favorite writers… I’m sure he’d have an opinion.
Kirill smiled. I think he’d be pleased, he answered. No, what’s the word?—relieved. I think Chekhov would be relieved. Though of course not very optimistic.
And also scared?
Konyeshna, of course. We all are.
Are you scared for yourself? I asked.
He shrugged. Look, he said, I’m only twenty-seven. I’m too young for the job I’m doing; I should’ve had more experience first. My family is from Kazakhstan. Before I went to university, I expected to spend my days in Almaty, not to be a journalist in Moscow. Not like this, at a major paper…
He looked at me, his gaze now stripped of any intent to impress.
You know, he added, I can say I’m not ready, but what good would that do? You’re never ready.
Chekhov would agree with that, I said. When he showed up in Moscow, he was just a teenager. He had no idea he’d become a writer. He was just trying to make a few bucks.
Kopeks, Kirill corrected me.
Right, I said. To help support his family. And then he wrote a couple of stories, and look what happened to him.
Ah, Chekhov… he’s so direct, said Kirill. That’s why I like him so much. I mean, he never—how do you say?—he never chewed his words, is that right?
Minced, I said. He never minced his words. And he was really funny, too. In the letters, especially.
I haven’t read his letters, said Kirill. Just the plays, which are often quite funny, yes.
We fell silent. I recalled how, in some of the letters Chekhov wrote to his wife, Olga, he devised comic names for her: river perch, kewpie, little scribble, mongrel pup. What was their marriage like? Lots of arguing and banter, if the letters were any guide. A good deal of mutual mistrust, not harsh but evident nonetheless, mixed with lively affirmations of affection. May I turn you upside down, wrote Chekhov, then give you a shake or two, then hug you, then bite your ear? I’d never forgotten that line. Simple words, a complex relationship. Anton and Olga spent their marriage living apart, mostly. No children. Doing their separate things.
Volodya, who’d returned, refilled my glass with cheap champagne. Someone slid a box of nasty-looking biscuits in our direction. I declined both, but Kirill ate and drank and gabbed animatedly. His glance, catching mine now and then over the rim of his glass, glinted with amusement.
Suddenly Zhenya dropped into the chair next to me.
I’ve done as your husband has asked, he said.
What’s that? I said.
You’re taking her away, Kirill crooned.
Zhenya chuckled. Yes, I am, actually, he said. Jack insists it’s too late for a train, so I’ve called a taxi. We must go wait for it.
Volodya began laughing. Are you kidding?
Across the room, Jack was putting on his sweater. I called out: You sure? Any chance we could catch a train after all?
At this, the two cops chuckled and shook their heads. Jack frowned slightly, his signal for me to mobilize.
Come along, my dear, said Volodya. He took my elbow and walked us unsteadily to the door; I had to lean against him to straighten him up.
Now, he said, I shall accompany you to the taxi! In fact, Kirill and I will take the taxi back to Moscow with you. Otherwise, we shall be forced to spend the entire night in this hole with Zhenya and these cops of his…
It’s not such a bad bar, I said.
It’s a hole, he said. To the city—the night is young! Russian democracy is young!
Zhenya led the way, steering us through Peredelkino’s moonlit streets to the intersection of a rutted dirt lane with a road bordering a wide, deserted field. The quiet was peculiarly Russian, complete and all-encompassing. It seemed as if no car had ever come down the road, nor ever would.
I shivered in my cotton blouse. The afternoon had been mild, but the evening held a slight chill, and I wished that, like Jack, I’d remembered to bring a sweater. After a minute, Kirill moved to one side of me and Volodya to the other, circling my shoulders with their arms. My two warmth-suppliers, both taller than I, talked literally over my head in Russian; I could make out nothing, their words a roof of slurred sound above me.
Jack and Zhenya moved in closer, forming a circle with us. Zhenya produced a small bottle of vodka; we passed it around. The air around my face seemed to crackle slightly after I drank.
Okay, I said at last, so where’s the taxi?
It will come, said Zhenya. Have patience.
We Russians are good at that, said Volodya. We wait well.
No, we don’t, said Kirill. We complain all the time.
And why not? Volodya said. We could complain all day and not even begin to touch all the things there are to complain about. Like this taxi, for instance—which definitely won’t come. Jack, let’s go back to the hole! We’re wasting valuable drinking time!
Nope, said Jack in that friendly yet firm voice he sometimes adopted when he intended for something to happen his way. We’re staying put.
Yes, we are, I said, especially since I’m finally warm.
Good, said Kirill, giving my shoulder a squeeze.
How delicious to be needed, said Volodya, leaning ungracefully into me. Kirill pushed back, not too hard, and we three somehow righted ourselves.
Jack’s and my gazes locked. I looked away from him, momentarily unsure, as if he weren’t my husband but someone else. I closed my eyes. Once more I pictured myself sequestered in a room in the modest dacha we’d passed on foot, several hours earlier. This time I saw myself scribbling, not sketching. And not on the paper in my sketchbook but on the room’s walls; and not images but words, more and more words, helter-skelter on the bare white plaster. Words gone amok. Communicating nothing.
I forced myself to talk. It’s awfully nice and quiet out here, I murmured idiotically.
No one responded. Then Zhenya spoke.
I wish, he said softly, I could spend more time here in Peredelkino. I used to have it—more time…
He paused. It’s sad, he added. Every hour, every minute, every second I could have had for myself, all gone. Sad—is that the only word for it? Because this sadness has many flavors, colors, sounds…
Now Jack’s eyes were closed. I couldn’t tell where he’d gone, but in that moment I knew it didn’t matter. We had our answer—had had it for some time, in fact, though we hadn’t been able to admit it til now. We wouldn’t be having a child. Jack might, down the road, with someone else, but I wouldn’t. My husband and I had been serving as a pair of stewards, well-intentioned but ill-equipped, of an ungovernable territory—our stake, our marriage—and it would be our protectorate no longer. We were both wandering off it, renouncing it. No longer wanting or needing to talk about it.
My body acted. I took a step away from the circle, aware that Jack stood opposite me. His eyes were open now, but didn’t seek mine.
You know it won’t always be like this, I said, addressing not him but Zhenya. Your life, I mean. It’ll change.
Maybe, Zhenya said quietly. In some way, yes, of course. But I’ll always wish for more sad time.
Don’t bother, Volodya said with a smile. Wish for nothing. Here’s to nothing!
He took a swig from the vodka bottle, then passed it to Zhenya.
Ah, ya znayu, said Zhenya. I know.
Our day in Peredelkino ended with the advent of a beat-up Volga that turned out to be the taxi Zhenya had called for us.
We piled in and waved goodbye. Zhenya turned back toward the bar, one palm up in farewell. I sensed he’d grasped what had transpired between Jack and me, although I never got a chance, after my marriage ended, to ask if he had. I left Moscow and Jack that fall, and Zhenya died in Russia, unexpectedly, seven years later. I didn’t see him during that interval; incessantly busy, he was near impossible to reach. Perhaps he found a few days here and there for his novel. But I doubted it.
So awful, Jack said when he called to tell me the news. We’d gotten divorced; he had a new wife and two children. I can’t believe Zhenya’s gone, he added. It feels impossible.
Zhenya’s hair fell out, Jack told me; his skin peeled off in layers. It took him over two weeks to die. His symptoms were consistent with those of several others—Aleksander Litvinenko, a former FSB officer; Roman Tsepov, an ex-bodyguard of Vladimir Putin; Lecha Islamov, an imprisoned Chechen rebel—who were killed, people said, by radioactive poisoning. Zhenya’s family was unable to obtain his medical records after his death. The authorities blamed what’d happened on an acute allergic reaction to food, something he’d eaten at a restaurant. Unlucky was the word they used.
After I got off the phone with Jack, I visualized that rutted dirt lane in Peredelkino where we’d stood waiting for the taxi. I remembered how Volodya told Zhenya he should wish for nothing. And how Zhenya hadn’t been sure about sad—the word, not the feeling. Though not exactly wrong, the word was a kind of curtailment. The feeling had many flavors, colors, sounds. And nothing could be done about it now.
In memory of Yuri Shchekochikhin, 1950–2003
Martha Cooley is the author of two novels—The Archivist, a national bestseller published in a dozen foreign markets, and Thirty-Three Swoons—and a memoir, Guesswork. Her third novel, Buy Me Love, will be published in June. A professor of English at Adelphi University, she has published short fiction, essays, and co-translations in numerous literary magazines.