With about 15 kilometers to go before Gyumri, we start having car trouble. Moments earlier, the taxi driver was passing other cars like a madman passing for sane. Now the tiny, rusted Opel is making a humming and stalling noise whenever he adjusts the gear. Each time, he tosses up his right hand in a “What can I do?” gesture.
I tuck my new scarf into my coat. The gas light is on. I say, “Petrol?”
“Petrol?” he repeats in disbelief. “Nyet.”
We abandoned conversation long ago, at the outskirts of Yerevan, where he had pointed out a cognac factory, sports arena, shopping mall, and the headquarters of the educational organization that had hired me to teach English. During my brief orientation there, the admins assured me I was doing a great service, that the children loved English, that it was an honor to have me. Finally the driver and I land on a single shared Anglicism: football. I mention my favorite team, Chelsea, but the name sends a wrinkle to his nose, lodging something like distance between us. Which is fine. I’m still not sure about customs between older men and younger women in Armenia, and decide to practice an excess of caution. Months later, at the end of the semester, in a spontaneous moment of gratitude, I will kiss an older café owner on the cheek, and the shame radiating from him will lodge itself in my throat and stay there long after I arrive back in America.
Now the taxi driver stands over the open hood of the Opel and makes the “What can I do?” gesture again, this time with both hands.
I notice a road sign with an illustration of a pump. “Petrol?” I say again. I check my phone. No service. The educational organization arranged the taxi, even though there’s a train that runs between the two cities, which lie 120 kilometers apart. I regret not exploring that option. The café owner will tell me, on one of the dark and lonely nights I spend drinking tea or wine in his establishment, that it is rare for women to go anywhere unaccompanied, that some places may, on their faces, look like the progressive cities of Europe, but change is slow to come. “Stops and starts,” he will say. He will then slip me an anti-government pamphlet he has written. Why a man might trust me with such a thing, I still don’t understand, though it may be my guileless face. Or maybe revolutions hinge on their own certainty, a perceived reality that precludes danger.
With a few sparks of ignition and slaps to the dash, the driver starts the car and we limp 100 meters to a gas station. An attendant in a brown leather jacket and a dog in a mangy black coat greet us in front of the single pump and concrete shack. I step out to stretch. The air is frigid and smoggy, flecked with particles that might be snow. The driver speaks in animated frustration to the attendant, seemingly unaware of the preventability of our problem. The attendant nods along, expressionless, as he plugs in the pump. I worry we will not be able to restart the engine as the driver runs behind the shack to relieve himself. Another dog appears, and joins the first. They cock their spiky heads in unison at me. When the tank is full, the driver returns and takes a phone call. I question his lack of haste, wonder if I should report him to some kind of authority, the educational organization, maybe. My SIM card has no minutes. He eventually hangs up, signals me to get back in the car, and finally turns the key. The engine sputters. The dogs trot off and the taxi driver accelerates slowly. Once we are safely back on the road to Gyumri, he laughs and says, “Petrol!”
I look out the window at the maybe-snow. The winter will be long and grim and lonely, like this car ride. I will not make it to summer, to long-planned trips to Lake Sevan and across the border to Georgia. In April, I will kiss the café owner and he will look away and say, “That’s too far.” Not long after, the spring news reports will unnerve me, and I, having learned some things but not nearly enough, will head home early. They will call it the Velvet Revolution, just like the Czechs. The protests will start as a march from Gyumri to Yerevan. They will last eleven days, and I will not be able to decide if this is a brief or excruciating time, because I will not be there. The US Ambassador will praise the country’s “spirit of democracy.” Despite these nods westward, the unofficial second tongue from the east will continue to slide into everyday interactions, family meals, professional contracts. Parliament will rearrange itself, the President will resign, but Russian oil will continue to flow through every gas pump in the nation. Fresh crops of Russian soldiers will arrive at their base in Gyumri, stroll Vardanants Square on their days off. Stops and starts, to quote the café owner.
The car is making huffing and popping noises now. We ignore them. “Da!” I say, and laugh with the driver. “Petrol!” Set phrases tumble from my mouth: crisis averted, thank God, holy cow, but none translate. I resist the anger bubbling up, a whisper that his stupidity has endangered us both, and that my own faulty language, so mighty elsewhere, cannot help me in a tiny Opel, so close and so far from where I need to be.
The anger carbonates, froth collapsing on itself. There is nothing for me to do. I wonder about the driver’s family, whether they live in a house or an apartment, if they own animals. I wonder if he dines alone and watches Russian TV at night, whether he resents the fact that I’m American or a woman more, if he’s thinking of me at all. I knock the dash three times as if it were wood. The driver laughs and taps the same spot.
When we arrive at the hostel in Gyumri, I want to exit quickly but can’t. I want to convince the driver of the high stakes of our encounter, the ecstatic relief of its safe conclusion. But he never saw the danger, and eventually I’ll stop seeing it too. But only after I take the easy way out, choosing certainty over the possibility of something new. Better, maybe.
The driver’s on his phone again. I’m holding him up. Outside the steamed window of the Opel, there’s no one around—just cold stone buildings, debris in the street, the distant amber glow of a café. Next to the driver, my hand hovers over the center console, makes a fist. Stops and starts. I pull it back, tuck a hair behind my ear, then turn and shout spasiba! as I slam the door behind me.
Melanie Broder is a writer in New York and elsewhere. She’s currently at work on a novel and translating a poetry collection from Spanish. This is her first publication. You can find her on Twitter @melbroder or at melaniebroder.com
Photo by author.