It’s 3 a.m. and I’m in a flower shop outside Red Square and all I need is some light to read the map. I step towards the lamp, looking sideways at the cashier with oblique, pulse-like smiles. She glares at me and I’m 3000 roubles into the bottle, so fuck it, I point at a lily or forsythia — some yellow flower — and hold up 200 roubles. She snatches the bills and wraps the stem. I hang the flower under my armpit and unfold the map — OK, you’ve run from the Kremlin island. Keep going up ул. Петровка — the street that looks like “Netpobka.”
I step down from the glass hut, everything dim and breathing — not traffic-jammed like it was a few hours ago. Now, the tan shop-fronts of watchmakers and purse boutiques look imperial in their desertedness. But we’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy. And I’m pissed that that bastard Chad ditched me at Solyanka.
I watch a nightclub’s neon-rainbow sign as a gaunt, suited-up man with a manbun and a wispy beard helps a redhead out of a cab. He lights her cigarette because her hands are full — a bouquet in one hand, an iPhone in the other. I remember my flower and turn onto the street of the Godzilla hostel. At a glass-paneled ministry building, two women holding hands step out of a shadow, the older one draped like an Orthodox nun. They turn away from the lily I’m holding out.
“For you,” I say.
The nun says something that sounds like “Babushka” and they hustle past, so I throw the lily on the street. Outside Godzilla’s, a French guy asks me for a smoke and I shake my head. I climb three flights to my room, get into bed, and pass out in my clothes.
Chad shakes me awake, sunlight pelting my face. He has a smug, rascally grin that fills me with anguish.
“Wakey wakey, it’s time for shopping before we leave Cow-town.”
Chad caddies at a golf course in Tennessee. Before vanishing at Solyanka, he was telling a French girl over martinis that he’s a “Darwinist”; he believes that reveling in the monkey descent of humans — thinking really hard over it — entitles him to this designation. With his endless strands of sunbleached hair billowing over his squinting, stupid eyes and tanned, leathery neck, he recalls a mummified surfer.
“Did you get my texts last night?” he asks.
I show him my phone: “No.”
“I went for a smoke with Céline. When we came back you were gone.”
I want to hit something, but only muster the silent treatment as I peel off the duvet.
Across the room, the other bunk has new sleepers. Up top, a bristly-faced guy rolls around, a toque pulled over his eyes. No bags or bed sheets — did he come in off the street? Below, a raven-haired, possibly Serbian girl lies with her silky legs open, her red panties hiked up. What would happen if I crawled under the covers with her? But I’m too vanquished, as I stand and look in the mirror, to think about my repressed ideas.
Shaping the front of my hair with my fingers, I spit into my palm and flatten down the cow-lick. Chad and I rake up and dispose of tourist fliers as we pack our clothes hanging on the radiator. We return our keys downstairs at Reception and get directions. Outside, a wave of humidity drenches us and we’re soon back on ул. Петровка, newly lined with mud-soaked Beemers and strictly un-American cars. The hour has come for more McDonald’s. Since we met at the Kremlin McDonald’s, realized we’re leaving for Saint Petersburg the same day — today — and teamed up, Chad has insisted on McDonald’s. His preference is such that he used the word “unpatriotic” when I called it “McDick’s.”
“But I’m not even American,” I said.
“No matter. You’re still a champion of freedom, no?”
I dab my oily forehead with the under-tips of my polo and marshal the nerve to jaywalk — death-run — across the highway-type road to the Kremlin island. A minute passes with no parting of the Red Sea. We count to three and bolt out insanely among the cars, dodging from clearing to clearing, cars horns blaring, backpacks in orbit. Somehow we arrive alive on the Kremlin side outside the Golden Arches.
Beyond the doors a mass of orange-shirted employees collides like bumper cars at the counter, trying to serve lineup-hating Muscovites. I order a Big Mac and coffee and Chad orders a Coke (I don’t know why he’s not hungry) and hums along to the house music. When he gets his Coke, he stabs the lid with a straw and hoovers until hearing the sound of emptiness and ice.
The girl scowls and nudges someone with more English.
“In America, McDonald’s gives free refills,” he says.
“Well, you could try being more American. Smiles are free, spread liberty.”
Murmurs arise. Chad insists on waiting as the cashiers gather to glare. I turn to see a man in blue and grey fatigues skipping the line. He reaches a hand out to Chad — but I sling my arm round Chad’s fat neck and hustle him outside through the metal detector.
“What?” he says, watching a woman taking a selfie by a flowerbox.
“We’re fucked here. We don’t know Russian. You’re carrying on like you’re some kind of oligarch or hot shit.”
“Everyone here’s an oligarch,” he says. “Or dissident. I mean, I’m just trying to practice a little Jeffersonian democracy.”
“Are you serious?”
“Absolutely,” he says.
“You’re not a billionaire,” I say.
“Look, if you have some specific complaint about me, then why not just get it out?”
“You’re an American tourist who isn’t worth shit here and you’re going to get us thrown in jail!”
The words rattle through my ribcage. I stare Chad down until he sees a Chihuahua cradled by a lady and goes off to try to pet it. The hell? This is the third time I’ve had to call him out. I should walk away, change my seat to Saint Petersburg. Or try to. But he’s all I’ve got in the Motherland. And soon, I’ll be hundreds of miles away from him at grad school. And in truth, I admire someone who’s not afraid to get his ass kicked, who has the balls to shoplift sunscreen or shit-talk waiters who write out our bill in pencil and carry too many ones. But it’s also easy to feel superior to someone so clownish. And I’m a lazy person.
I look at the metro map, transliterating Cyrillic. I slurp down my Big Mac and run with Chad across the street, back up Петровка to the familiar Цветной бульвар.
We buy double-journey tickets and scan them at the gates, beginning our descent under Moscow. The escalator runs for what feels like a hundred metres down, affording a survey of droves of Russians rising to the street. We plunge down past huge light bulbs, cell-phone ads, people going up: smoking-hot blondes with Louis Vuitton bags, frumpy matrons with quaint hairdos, military, a Tatar family, a man and his screaming kid.
I grip the steel railing as the doors shut on the lime-green eastbound line. The dirty grey car screeches to full throttle, goes faster, faster, almost whistling like a kettle, runs obscenely, hellishly fast, the sparking metal wheels overclocked, slaved to their mechanical limit. A Tatar girl smiles at me and looks away, again and again, as the train jolts and slows, gliding to a halt at Сре́тенский Бульва́р. I’m imagining this scene twenty years back, or maybe this train car exists in a multiverse. We almost forget to change to the blue line, but we switch and ride to Партизанская.
Back at the surface, a beige shepherd dog lies by a war-torn man with one eye and a cart of bottles and magazines. Chad winks at me. Yesterday at the Armoury we discussed whether the Westernization of Russia would strip its women’s femininity. Whether lining up is anathema to Eurasian culture. I don’t know if I can stand four hours on the train with him. It kills me, I’m realizing, how such a knob gets slobbered with so much attention.
On the crosswalk I see a lady with a shiny, embalmed-looking forehead and I point to my computer-print-off map. I ask, “Are the twin towers the Izmaylovskaya market?” She waves me off like a flea and my instinct is to shout, but Chad shrugs like “take a chill pill.”
We walk in silence. At the gates of the flea market, a Tatar boy charges 10 roubles.
“We should go to the train station soon,” I say. “We’re late.”
We jog between stalls with fake Rolexes, metal flasks with hammers & sickles, shawls, plywood baskets with carvings of St. Basil’s, matryoshka dolls. I flip over a stone bust of Karl Marx and Chad barters for a chess set pitting King Reagan against Queen Yeltsin. After he cops it for 1500 roubles, we turn left at the end of the lane. The alley widens, a black sign with two crossed AKs hanging from the stakes of a tent. There are no female vendors in this section, all the men in sunglasses smoking, pacing, slapping each other’s back. There are no matryoshkas here, but glinting war medals, rippling flags, army fatigues, a couple vintage muskets. Chad grabs a police cap and pulls it down over his voluminous, flowing hair. I take one with a brim the colour of seaweed and rotate it. The red band around the middle has two buttons pinning gold-trimmed ropes that enclose a wreath and badge with a red star and hammer & sickle. I flick the black plastic cap and it clacks. A leather patch on the underside of the hat says “43 ЦЭПК MOCKBA 81 60.”
“Real Soviet,” says the man. “Two thousand roubles.”
“One thousand five hundred.”
“OK,” he says, taking the money. “Good luck.”
Why do some Russians with English say “good luck” instead of “goodbye”? I almost ask Chad. I don’t. I barter for a rusted pin and two war medals and swap them in my pocket for my phone. It’s 10:48; train leaves at 11:30.
“Let’s go,” I say, putting on my Soviet cap as we retrace our steps over the asphalt. Pretty soon I notice people giving me stares. An old gentleman in an Italian suit shakes his head at me. I begin to lift the cap off, but a voice chides me to grow a pair. I need to learn not to give a shit. And it feels kind of nice, for once, to be the vanguard of the group. And besides, tons of men in Moscow wear fatigues and they can’t all be military, right?
At the metro we flash our cards under the sensor and a portly guard lady with a walkie-talkie squints and says something in Russian. Chad stares at me for a few long seconds and I blush. We begin to sink down into the subway and I take long breaths, addicted to the Moscow underground, these stations like medieval town squares.
The straps of my backpack chafe against my shoulders, so I put the bag on the escalator step below. Looking up, I catch a grimace from a police officer climbing the escalator on the far side. He stares me up and down and speaks Russian. I take off the cap and turn away, playing dumb, but he starts yelling. I move to walk down the escalator, my head facing away from him, but my foot connects with the knapsack and launches it down the steps and my heart leaps to Andromeda as I watch it cascade and bowl towards a group of people. I turn, hesitate, and sprint up the steps past commuters yelling and pointing fingers and before my feet hit the surface there’s a scream — a thud — down below, someone drops, more ghoulish screams and please let no one die! The cop’s running up the far side and I soar with everything I’ve got past the guard and everyone points as I bound down the steps into the surging sunlight, trees, concrete, kiosks, no one’ll catch me, the cops don’t carry guns, but where do I go?
I sprint past red-brick buildings down the block and down the steps of an underground bridging an intersection, hide in the shadows, sweat jetting, my heart pumping like it’s powering the Titanic, like it’s about to pop, but all I can do is suck air as though through a straw as I creep up the stairs at the left exit. A beggar hisses and babbles and I hear someone’s footsteps plodding down quickly — the echo fades out the other direction. I wait a few seconds, scrape up a few steps, peek my head into the open air. Across the street the officer stands by a chain-link fence looking in my direction. I duck down, gasping, as the beggar drools and drops a bottle. Instantly, I wrench off my polo and hand it to him, wave for him to give me his shirt. I approach and he yells out and I wrench the t-shirt off his arms as he cracks up in delirious moans. The shirt smells like a funhouse of vomit. Footsteps echo down the other side and I race up to the surface.
A cab idles at a red across the street. I gun it over the sidewalk and practically jump on the hood of the car before flinging open the door and hopping in, waving a wad of roubles, saying, “Go, go, go! Leningradsky Station! Saint Petersburg Station!” The cabbie keeps trying to speak Russian, eventually putting his foot on the gas and pulling away at a casual tempo.
I duck down, hamstring spasming. I feel the putrid shirt, tattered green with gold Cyrillic. My chest rages, sinuses reaching a peak of clarity. I long to be back in the suburbs, in my old clothes, my old job, anywhere, anything but this. If I stay in Russia I will die. My visa expires two days from now, no money for another train. I need to escape by train or ferry to Estonia, to Finland. But my backpack has a library card, they’ll ID me. The truth programs itself into my breaths: I will die in Moscow.
Tears splash into my mouth as I swallow the saltiness and try to not move, hunched over, light-headed. The cabbie stops the car sometime later and holds out a 1000-rouble bill to show his fee. I pull the last one from my wad and hurry out the door in the direction he points. Crowds issue from a metro entrance before three cream-brown buildings, but which one is Leningradsky? Did the guy at Godzilla Reception say it was the middle?
I run up the ramp and pass through the metal detector.
The hallway is patrolled by men in berets and black jackets, their semi-autos dangling from leg holsters. I almost turn back. An announcement peals from the loudspeaker that I can’t understand, I can’t even read my ticket. “Excuse me,” I say to a woman wheeling her suitcase, but nothing. I stare hard at a security guard, trying to find sympathy. Wrong country to ask for directions. The bottom of my ticket says “6” and “11:30.” There’s a match on the departures board.
I go through the foyer, past a rectangular set of chairs whose occupants stare like I’m a leper. When I rush through the door for platform six, my heart amps up loud — security checkpoint with conveyor belt, baggage screening. Patting down my pockets, I feel the hardness of the pins and medals. A stout, neckless guard waves me through with his hand and I place the medals and pins face-down in a plastic bin on the conveyor belt. I almost leave them behind, but the guards don’t react and I pocket them on the other side.
I hustle down the platform along train #6, slowing to look calm, and show my ticket to a steward, who points further down the tracks. At the next car a porter with dyed-red hair flips through my passport. I cover a rust-coloured shirt-stain with my hand as she leads me to compartment #48. Through the glass, Chad stares with pulsating, restless eyes and I slide open the door and sit, exhaling. Then a policeman on a walkie-talkie comes down the hall and opens the door and barks something that sounds like “Babushka.” Everything sounds like “Babushka.”