Friday, March 5, 2010

A SHORT STORY

“One’s destination is never a place,

but a new way of seeing things.”—Henry Miller


FROM RUSSIA WITH…

PEERING OVER HER SUNGLASSES, Brenda Shorenstein took in a breathtaking view of Paris under a walloping great sky. Hot August wind blew across her where she stood at Sacre Coeur, high above the city, on Butte Montmartre. “God knows what will come of all this,” she sighed, scanning a web of narrow streets. Emptied of Parisians, the steep cobblestone paths of Montmartre were negotiated now by herds of myopic tourists. Clouds like thick gray woolen socks, which lowered her expectations on arrival, had dispersed. A strong sun bleached the rooftops. Moscow, where she had just come from, had been hellishly hot. Forest fires on the outskirts of that city had rained burnt-smelling cinders over everything, fairly obliterating the sun.

Brenda recognized the conversation of indolent American tourists jostling her: “That shop clerk was rude but whadya expect?” “They act like they don’t unnerstand a word of English.” “Why can’t I find anything to fit?” She edged closer to the white stone balustrade, which was practically fluorescent in the blazing sun, and thwarting a parade of tourists she recaptured the view. “It’s August,” she reasoned. “I was warned.”

Nearly 25, Brenda’s first trip abroad began in Moscow and ended in Paris. Back home Richard Nixon was counting on a ‘silent majority’ to win him a second term as their Communist-routing president, but even he had been to the Soviet Union only a few months before on his way to China. Brenda had been more emboldened in Moscow than she’d dreamed. Now, in Paris, she was less sure than she’d hoped.

Brenda had tried to make the marriage work, though she had no idea what that meant. It already was work. She countenanced marriage with the intention of putting some order into her life. But it was the wrong move and now she felt trapped. Never was there a more perfect example of a confused, assured, fearful, fearless person. No question about it—she wants to cry all the time, even when she laughs or sees others laugh she wants to cry.

“Ha-a-low!” Brenda flinched. Jacob—Jake to his devoted parents—had a gratingly effeminate voice like his mother’s, which detracted from his footballer physique. She edged an imperceptible distance, ignoring him.

After Moscow, Paris had completely undone her. Tapping into some deep reservoir of resentment or regret—she could not honestly say which—left her in tears. They argued in the Louvre under Mona Lisa’s dispassionate scrutiny and sparred in leafy parks ignoring the jerky movements of chalk-faced mimes. Punishing carafes of red wine undermined the thrill of a singer’s warbled homage in a boite à chansons. Taken for natives who were comfortable with their volatile public displays they were asked directions in careless French from clueless Americans. Once, on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, she’d slumped against a lamppost defeated and weeping. An old man, a proper Frenchman accompanied by his scrappy little dog, vehemently chastised Jacob. Her husband dodged the man’s walking stick, protesting that she, his wife, could have anything she wanted.

“I’m starving. Ha-a-low, anyone there?” Brenda rebuffed her husband and slid from his grasp. Dressed in a faded denim mini skirt and a knitted patchwork top she fingered granny-style sunglasses, surreptitiously wiping a tear behind rose-colored lenses. “I will come back to Paris, to this spot,” she swore silently, “and I will be different.”

Preparing for the trip, Brenda had struggled with so many what-ifs. Her husband was disengaged, as usual, and entirely absorbed in his work. A friend introduced Brenda to someone at the library where they both worked who had made many trips to Russia and who generously offered advice that only added to her confusion. What if she inadvertently brought in contraband? Even unwrapped pantyhose, apparently the bargaining tool, could be confiscated at customs and she reproved for packing too much for personal use. “Bring gum,” she was told, “for the children.” But Brenda’s hyperactive imagination found her in a Tennessee Williams scenario, ripped to pieces by cannibalistic boys who would misconstrue her innocent offerings.

After a nerve-shattering cab ride from the airport, driven by a surly, chain-smoking, lead-footed Russian emboldened by his panic-stricken passengers, Brenda and Jacob fell trembling from the back seat of the taxi at the entrance to the Rossiya hotel, reeking of cigarettes, cheap vinyl, and fear. Herman and Faye Weissbrodt appeared that dreadfully hot morning as if they’d lain in wait for their arrival.

Brenda steadied herself for Faye’s clammy embrace. She and her husband and the rest of his team—minus Jacob—had been in Moscow for two days and evinced the shell-shocked appeal of unwitting hostages. Jacob, oblivious to what was required of normal people, had neglected the paperwork necessary for visas. It was only through the machinations of Milton, his wealthy and professionally connected father, his vainglorious mother Roz, and a hurried trip to Washington D.C., that their adored only child would deliver a paper at Moscow University.

Brenda liked Faye well enough, but there was little in common beside their husbands’ research at Rockefeller Institute in Manhattan. Faye was a housewife—accepting of her role—with no discernible talents apart from a killer pecan pie and an ability to ignore Herman’s indiscretions. Her dewy accent and demure dress contrasted sharply with the scattershot delivery of a native New Yorker who lived in miniskirts and platform heels. Faye thought Brenda was a little ‘crazy’ and any talk of Brenda’s job at Columbia University in Butler library, her growing involvement with the labor union on campus or her fervent desire to write was met with Faye’s measured drawl: “I cain’t think why any woman would want to work as hard as you want to.”

While Jacob pantomimed at the front desk, Brenda disclosed what had transpired. In London they left comfortable modernity behind when uniformed Russian men appeared and escorted them to a connecting Aeroflot flight. A flinty female guard searched Brenda who was exhausted and uneasy. Upon disembarking at Moscow Airport they were marched across the tarmac and entered a terminal worlds away from the futuristic structure at JFK. Brenda was certain their plane had breached a time barrier and had landed them in some remote, antediluvian outpost. “You guys…you remember that Twilight Zone episode?” Herman and Faye nodded sympathetically.

Brenda told them she’d noticed that Jacob was not at her side. Frantic, she looked around for him. “He’s surrounded by police…or soldiers…I don’t know what, but they were scare-e-e.” Jacob, outfitted by his mother in a baggy brown Brooks Brothers suit, waved his arms helplessly after he’d patted his pockets and then tore through his briefcase. His rumpled club tie and button-down shirt struggled to abandon him. The gate Brenda had just passed through was now shut. “I’m in freakin’ Russia and he’s not!”

Herman rolled his eyes, recognizing the signs. Jacob was the absent-minded professor, a label endured good-naturedly from fellow scientists. The lone female doctorate in the department, the secretaries, and the lab technicians were less enamored.

Urged on by Faye, Brenda described begging tearfully to please be allowed through the gates just as one of the uniforms pulled Jacob’s passport from his pocket. “Smirking and all, whoa, where did this come from?” Brenda quipped. Jacob had dropped it on the tarmac where they’d skirted men kneeling in prayer, flipping like jackknives. A thickset, unsmiling woman searched through Brenda’s luggage. Her drab uniform contrasted sharply with brassy hair pulled tightly into a doughnut-shaped clump at the back of her head, forcing her cap into a comic tilt. Brenda’s things were judiciously culled but neither the panty hose nor the gum sparked any interest. Relieved, Brenda retrieved the stockings but the guard spied a paperback book. “Nothing inflammatory,” Brenda had been warned. Certainly nothing like Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward, which she finished reading just days before. “My God. Have you guys read that?” Herman and Faye had not. The guard uncovered John Updike’s Rabbit Run. Brenda had chosen the book, not because she liked the author—she didn’t—but because it was popular and she thought it would be a safe bet. “So, this woman, she’s turning every page, brings it up real close to her face, looking for God knows what…” Brenda paused for effect, “…holding it upside down!”

Jacob returned, punched Herman genially on the arm and said: So, what’s it like here?” “It’s like being a nigger in the Deep South,” Herman drawled. “Herm!” A sharp jab from his wife caused him to squint cautiously around the lobby, avoiding Brenda’s expected indignant response. Brenda was too relieved to react. If Herman and Faye were a reassuring presence then Brenda was in deeper than she’d imagined.

Struggling with their luggage in the wake of a dour, slow-moving woman they arrived at their room. Jacob wrestled with the door key until it broke in the lock. Uncannily the same woman who’d guided them to their room at a paralyzing gait, who had returned to her seated post further down the corridor, was behind them in a flash, her bulk notwithstanding. She plucked the decapitated key from Jacob’s hand. “Joiner come,” she said gravely. They tried and failed to get any other information from her: When would that happen? Where should they keep their luggage until then? What should they do now? Every question prompted the same response: “Joiner come.” Jacob prodded Brenda, “Use your German.” She frantically mined one semester of the language and sputtered: “Was sollen wir tun?” The woman—called a floor mother—softened perceptibly: “Joiner come.”

Resigned, they left their luggage and returned to the lobby. Jacob declared he was off to meet Herman and the rest of the team, catch up on the symposium ahead. “I’ll see you back here, yeah?” Stunned, Brenda watched him hurry away. Faye had gone off to her room to nap and Brenda’s first thought was to find Faye and wake her the hell up. It was stiflingly hot at ten o’clock and she was desperate for a cool shower. But the prospect of navigating the massive hotel in search of Faye’s room forced her to rethink. She was, after all, carrying the rubles. Jacob was hopeless with money. The hotel was centrally located. Brenda had practiced one very important word in Russian: spasiba. She’d be perfectly fine on her own. She hoped.

The luggage was gone when she returned. Under the steely glare of a different matron installed on the same chair, Brenda turned the doorknob. Each suitcase, still locked, had been placed on a single bed. The room key lay on a nondescript bedside table. It was a small, somewhat shabby room without much personality, which surprised Brenda. The hotel was Moscow’s showpiece, the reason they had booked here. In the cramped bathroom she turned on the taps and both faucets dripped lukewarm water. The best feature in the room was the floor-to-ceiling window—streaked with soot—which when opened revealed an impressive view of St. Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square, but offered no respite from the odd heat. She realized that the scene was not unlike the oxidized copper onion tops she’d grown used to seeing from their apartment on the Upper East Side.

Brenda decided not to read anything into this. She’d had a good day and even if she’d felt intimidated, she thought she had accomplished something significant. When Jacob burst into the darkened room, Brenda roused from a deep sleep. She wanted to tell him of her solo adventure but he kept his back to her, rummaging through his suitcase for a clean shirt. She suspected his sweaty exuberance was somehow down to a few drinks but he rejected her assertion and told her he had been in Walter’s room all day, practicing his talk.

Still not facing her, Jacob urged her to get ready. Brenda’s news would have to wait: the angry, armed Soviet policeman sternly motioning to put pen and notebook away. How she cautiously explored the odd and outdated merchandise in arcade shops under the glass roof of an elegantly designed department store taking up one whole side of massive Red Square and negotiated the currency, freely peppering her finger-pointing with effusive spacibas to score a stick of shriveled cubes of chicken and a turbid sour-cherry drink that slid down her throat like liquid sandpaper. Everyone hurrying past her carried what appeared to be the same kind of melon in identical net bags; the young girls swaying arm-in-arm like lovers and the defeated look of drunkards careering in the street. All of that would have to wait.

Dinner at a restaurant not far from the hotel was a riotous affair fueled by a seemingly unending supply of vodka of a proof unheard of back home. There were identically labeled bottles of Georgian wine that varied wildly in taste. Dr. Walter Larew, head of Jacob’s department, held court at one end of the long table, which had been decorated with paper American flags and laden with bowls glistening with black caviar. Above them hung gluey strips dotted with flies. Herman was there with Faye who’d captured a seat next to Brenda and who clung to her all evening. Among the group, Brenda observed, she and Faye were the only women at the table. She had no idea who the ruddy-faced men were laughing boisterously with her husband and the other scientists.

Hard-mouthed women in evening dress skulked around the perimeter casting covert glances at their table. Deprived of the mostly southern-born scientists’ bourbon drink of choice, the men indulged freely in vodka, toasting astronauts and cosmonauts, Yanks and Soviets, hot dogs and caviar. It would be the last time in the trip that a frosty glass of chilled vodka passed their lips. Brenda, resigned to the absence of air-conditioning anywhere, tipped her head back a few times and let the sleety clear liquid tear down her throat. Dr. Larew’s unsteady hauteur encouraged them to spend the next day sightseeing. He bellowed like a Confederate general on the eve of battle: “Ma friends, make sure you all do not miss the Cold Cut.” A collective flicker of unease shot across each one of them, momentarily sobered by the reference to Vladimir Lenin, whose body lay in state in nearby Red Square.

Insistent pounding at their door collided with her smacking headache and a tummy overloaded with smoked fish, potatoes and cabbage, beets and something called aubergine, which turned out to be eggplant. Brenda clawed for her watch; she saw it was, incredibly, only five in the morning. Throughout the night the telephone had rung and each time Jacob picked it up he shouted into the phone, “I don’t understand!” Finally Brenda answered and the line went dead.

They had returned from the restaurant to find the windows she’d left open had been shut. Brenda again threw them open, lightheaded from the vodka and the wine, and intoxicated with the foreignness of her surroundings. She imagined the scent of smoldering charcoal still lingered in the dense night air. She was in a good mood—a sexy mood—but Jacob’s mind was elsewhere. The austere twin beds were not exactly an enticement. Jokingly, Brenda combed the room looking for “bugs” and Jacob, irritated, shouted at her to cool it. At the window she asked him if he didn’t smell something burning. “Go to bed,” he grumbled. Before he shut the light he promised, “We’ll have fun tomorrow.”

The pounding resumed. Brenda leapt to the door. In the dimly lit corridor she recognized the same matron they had first encountered. The woman charged into the room, heading straight for the window, which she firmly shut. Jacob stared wide-eyed from his bed. “Winds come,” she said and left.

Jet lagged for the first time in her life, Brenda paced nervously, buzzing the many thoughts that clamored for her attention. “Paris will be good,” she reckoned. Though she hated the fact that Jacob’s parents had insisted on the diversion. Brenda had rallied for the Moscow leg of the trip, not wanting to miss out on such an experience. She’d felt strong-armed into Paris, more so because it was the city of her dreams, the home of her literary heroes. But her depression distracted their son, and so her in-laws stepped in. “Have a second honeymoon,” they urged. “Go somewhere romantic after Moscow, celebrate Jake’s success.” Get pregnant is what they meant, have a child and leave our son alone.

They spent the day together, accompanied by the Weissbrodts; the only day she was not on her own. They queued in Red Square to view the body of Lenin but were quickly tapped and then goaded to the front of a deathless line of Soviet citizens who, if they were angered by the special treatment of American tourists, showed no sign. The armed escort mitigated Brenda’s embarrassment.

Bored in the Kremlin, they sagged under ostentatious displays of wealth. Brenda could not reconcile the bright yellow buildings and overwrought riches with the apparent poverty outside the Kremlin walls. They drifted like zombies until Faye discovered the Fabergés and declared they were just about the darlingest eggs she’d ever seen.

Their hunger was done a cruel turn when waiters shouted, “Nyet, nyet,” and they were turned away from barely populated restaurants. Brenda led them to sidewalk food carts and they gorged themselves on pirozhki and kebabs. Cabbage, cheese, meat, onion, they devoured it all.

By mid-day the sky had darkened. The heat that pressed upon them was staggering. It smelled like the sky was burning. They joined another queue to slake their parched throats. Brenda knew about the little kiosks: Wait your turn. Ignore the line jumpers. Drop your kopecks in the slot and hold the communal glass steady under a stream of something called kvass. Drink the fermented, lukewarm liquid and return the glass upside down to rinse over a waterspout. A chain, she noticed, attached the glass. Herman and Jacob went for it thinking it must be alcoholic and maybe even cold. Faye, gagging, politely declined.

Jacob and Herman had no interest in shopping and all it took was one rude encounter when they were ostentatiously cold-shouldered in a nearly empty shop to put them off any further investigation. From the vendors in the outdoor market on Arbat Street Faye bought Russian dolls. Brenda purchased shiny red pins with Lenin’s image, ignoring her husband’s curious stare. The men brightened at a display of bear skin rugs, bravely investigating the now harmless head and ineffective claws still attached.

Later Faye and Brenda joined their husbands in Walter’s room where they had spent the evening preparing for the next day’s symposium. A tiny sink blossomed with bottles of Stoli swimming in tap water in a vain attempt to keep them cool. Brenda was used to the hard drinking scientists who waxed as eloquently about their preferred bourbon as they did about some new discovery. But they had always maintained a kind of southern gentlemanly demeanor. In the claustrophobic heat of the airless room that reeked of alcohol and sweat they fairly reeled about, roaring with laughter and comparing conspiracies. Why had no one had any idea where the charred smell came from? Why did the city look like it had been covered in some kind of hellish snowfall? Questioning a hotel employee got a vague shrug, as if this was a normal occurrence. “Accordin’ to Pra-a-a-vda,” Herman slurred, “Ain’t nuthin happenin’ here, so just mo-o-ove along folks.” This provoked another round of hysterical laughter.

A knock at the door revealed two of the women Brenda recognized from the restaurant, still in the same sorry evening dress. “Wrong room!” shouted Walter and turned them away. The men fell into comparing their lab assistants, trading innuendos, something about how easily they “assisted.” A numbing shift passed through her, but Brenda failed to catch Faye’s eye.

The morning of Jacob’s talk, Brenda arrived on the university grounds with only moments to spare. Across a square mile of parched landscape loomed the colossal structure where she was meant to be. She clipped on her official pass, resigned to having to run in the heat. A cluster of American women preparing to board a bus caught her attention. “Excuse me,” Brenda inquired. “Where…I mean what is this…?” One of the women smiled and tapped her nametag, very much like the badge Brenda wore. “Hi, I’m Dr. Leppert. Ellen. Johns Hopkins. Are you looking for the hospital tour?” Brenda nodded without thinking. “Well, c’mon. I imagine this will be some experience.”

Brenda kept to herself, affecting the concentrated demeanor of a professional. It became obvious that the tour was staged for their benefit. Though the floor of the hospital ward gleamed, the place was prehistoric. Everything was disturbingly outdated, even decrepit, from the rusted iron beds to the few patients in evidence who inhabited those beds, gumming toothless smiles. While their guide touted the superior healthcare of the Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn’s words tolled grimly in her head: “We mustn’t talk about death! We musn’t even remind anyone of it.” Only a few of the women—obstetricians—were allowed to witness an abortion. Expressionless, they rejoined the group and remained silent on the return. When Jacob asked later what she thought of his paper—did he speak too fast, did he look nervous—she replied, “You were fine. It sounded great.”

Travelers brought the news from abroad that a forest fire on the outskirts of Moscow was the source of all that ash and Brenda left the last of her inhibitions behind. There was a fire in her life, too. And everyone had ignored that. Each day brought a new adventure. On her own, she discovered the sensation of time, how it didn’t matter in her displaced scheme of things. At home she woke to the alarm and hurried off to her job at the library. Jacob seemed to come and go at will—between their apartment, his lab and his parents’ richly appointed home on Fifth Avenue.

Early morning solitary walks in the city calmed her. Brenda had taken to braiding her hair, pinning it atop her head. Deciding to be innocuous, she dressed in the longest skirt she owned and wore a light, long-sleeved blouse she’d brought just in case there were chilly nights. Before she left the hotel she proffered a balled pair of panty hose to the floor matron on duty. Each uttered a stern “Nyet” and all pocketed her offering. In the streets Brenda watched the old humped women in babushkas sweeping the streets with crude brooms made of twigs and she recalled the bent-back men swinging scythes in the vast fields along the road from the airport on that first terrifying morning. She strolled under the impassive gaze of caryatids. She noted what was carried in those net bags—different every day and all the same. She discovered she could indulge to her heart’s content the sweet ice cream as long as she got some before noon and as long as she was happy with vanilla.

On her first attempt in the Metro a man stepped out of the rapid flow of passengers and drew a line with his finger, showing her how to use the interactive subway map. He hurried away, swallowed up in the current, ignoring or frightened by her effusive spacibas. Brenda bravely plumbed the luxurious depths, open-mouthed at the extravagance of the peoples’ palaces. Chandeliers, if they lasted at all, would be missing a few crystals on the IRT line back home. TAKI would have a graffitti artist’s field day with all those slick marble surfaces.

She visited the Tretykov Gallery and listened impatiently to the young guide with the blackened teeth as one golden icon began to resemble the next. Poking her head into a gallery she was startled to see a Kandinsky hanging in all the painter’s colorful and abstract glory. The guide dismissed those paintings and discouraged any detours. With the hospital tour fresh in her mind, she asked him, why, if they had such a great system of health care, were his teeth in such need of repair? “Only the pain is addressed,” he responded, she thought, wistfully. “We don’t care about the cosmetics.”

Led through the rooms of Tolstoy’s house Brenda was overcome when she entered the great writer’s study. Here among the gloomy trappings had once sat writers named Maxim Gorky and Anton Chekhov. As a girl she’d been ashamed of being sent to the free city camps for underprivileged kids. Holed up at the shady side of an inner-city pool she devoured library books. Brenda had never learned to swim but she had a massive reading habit she never shook. Mentally she made a note to add those Russians to her reading list when she got back to New York. She bent to stroke one of the many cats strolling the grounds, descendants of the writer’s own feline companions. Maybe she’d get a cat and call it Leo. Who needed children anyway?

Freed of their obligations, the scientists seemed to unhinge before Brenda’s eyes. They gathered at the hotel for dinner and drunkenly accepted a plate of underweight chicken, not fully plucked, their menu choices ignored. The undependable Georgian wine and the ever-present bucket of caviar were summarily demolished. Afterwards they attended the circus, where the dizzying stench from the bears and humans was inescapable. Or they found their seats at the Bolshoi Ballet, when Faye, in a faint-hearted whisper, begged Brenda to accompany her to the toilets before the end of the performance only to be turned away at the exit doors guarded by unyielding female ushers. Walter, shadowed by one of those hard-mouthed Russian women, caused Brenda to wonder what his wealthy thoroughbred wife would think, alone among the fussy period décor in their Park Avenue apartment. Brenda speculated what Jacob would be up to if she wasn’t there. She wondered about all those late nights at the lab.

On their last night in Moscow Jacob and Herman planned to meet their wives in the hotel’s rooftop restaurant. The Weissbrodts were desperate for home and made plans to stop in Louisville before returning to New York. Jacob and Brenda would carry on to Paris. The women met in the lobby and were followed onto the elevator by an aged, toothless stick of a woman clad in black and a small, round-faced boy. Brenda hit the 21st floor, which was their destination. She turned to the wizened face and mimed hitting another floor for the woman and child. They pressed closer to the elevator wall. “Prolly goin’ to the same place,” Faye suggested.

Their ascent halted abruptly. “These things happen, I was told,” Brenda offered. Faye was not reassured and bored an imaginary hole through the doors, willing them open. Five minutes passed. The boy crouched closer to the woman. They stared, unblinking, at Brenda and Faye. “Push that red button,” urged Faye. A watery alarm resounded above them. They waited. Brenda pushed it again. They were startled by a ringing telephone, hidden behind the old woman. Garbled Russian volleyed through the line and Brenda understood nothing but the urgent reprimand in the voice of the caller. She held the receiver out to the old woman who shrank further from her. Brenda shouted into the receiver, “We are stuck in the elevator! I can’t tell which floor!” The caller hung up. “They’re coming,” Brenda said. “I think.”

Faye had just about had it and tugged at the doors, which sprang open. They decided one of them could give a leg up to the old woman and the boy while the other held the door. The odd couple sprang to life, as if they’d understood the Americans. The old woman lifted her skirts. The boy scrambled out on his own. Faye watched, aghast, as the two skittered out of sight. They managed to extricate finally and found themselves in an empty hallway. “I’m walking. No way you’re getting me on another elevator,” Faye huffed.” “Oh Christ,” Brenda moaned. “We’re on the sixth floor!”

Beet-red and sweating profusely they barged past a waiter attempting to shoo them off and headed for their husbands who were also red-faced and by the looks of it, drunk. The enormous dining room was nearly empty. Jacob grinned: “What took you girls so long?”

Brenda Miller buttoned her black silk jacket, aware of an early morning chill atop Butte Montmartre. Dawn speared the lapis sky and reminded her of a metro station in Moscow, that same rich blue in a ceiling clinquant with golden hammer & sickles. Or maybe it was so long ago that she’d imagined it. She still loved Russian food. They both did and she and her husband frequented the cheap and cheerful restaurants on the lower east side of Manhattan. Brenda had been back to Paris many times. She’d met Neil in Paris eight years ago. This trip was their first real honeymoon and though they both hated that term they made the most of it. They had been up all night, dancing at a party friends had thrown for them. After a midnight walk along the Seine they decided spontaneously to walk across Paris from their borrowed flat on the Rue de la Huchette. They strolled through wet streets filling with noisy club goers on their way home. Still with a lovers’ confidence, they’d plucked a baguette from the doorway of a boulangerie and assured each other it was not stealing.

She’d been standing for a long time, watching the sunrise over Paris and suddenly turned to look for her husband. Neil Howe was a painter from London. She’d not taken his name when they married. After shedding her first husband she decided to keep her family name. They struggled but their lives were rich. “Sorry. How long have I been staring? Was I gone long?” He put his arms around her and nuzzled her neck. “I didn’t want to disturb you. You weren’t really gone.”

FROM RUSSIA WITH… is an original short story by Linda Danz.

STORIES ON THE AMERICAN FRIEND Writers Guild of America, East #R28299

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, business organizations, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. The use of names of actual persons, places, and events is incidental to the plot, and is not intended to change the entirely fictional character of the work.
© March 2010

3 comments:

Christina Zarcadoolas, PhD said...

From capturing the xenophobic tourists to arguing under the Mona Lisa’s dispassionate look, to toasting cosmonauts - this tale hit the mark for me.

I’ve oftened thought of what Russia was like during the endless cold war -
…cigarettes, cheap vinyl and fear. That’s just as reproductive of the atmosphere as I can conjure. The chilled marriage congealed it all for me.
( why Updike held upside down. I know some things are meant for impression - but I’d love to know what the guard was looking for. )

Could Jacob’s paper be any more perfunctory to renda - to anything. Perfect.

But even with all this, what speaks most to me as a reader is the moving back and forth in time through images - not too jolting, as can often be with writers - but gently and purposefully enough for the resonance. An example of this is the memory of reading alone in the pool area, told right in the middle of depicting Tolstoy’s house.

From the moment they escape from the elevator I began to breath again, really.

Bravo!

Druidhead said...

Thank you for your generous comments.

Though this is a fictional story, I have often thought about my own trip to Moscow in'72 about that guard and that "upside down" Updike, which really happened. Perhaps it was because these people, in small positions of power, really were quite uneducated and in 72 would not have seen much, if any, English. The cyrillic language had nothing in it to compare. So as she took the book from the suitcase is how she read it. I think then I thought she was doing it on purpose as some kind of insult or intimidation. Despite Nixon's visit, Americans were not their visitors of choice :+) But as with so many who are forced into these militaristic/policing positions (the only real jobs at the time for those who spoke no other languages) she probably had no idea.

I remember wanting to "kidnap" the young man who was the guide in Tretykov Gallery then. But imagine his surprise at our health care brouhaha now :+)

It was my first experience of extremes of riches and poverty separated by "walls."

I have just ordered "Cancer Ward" from the library to refresh my memory of that outstanding book. Still a library member and still a reader…

paul said...

Once again this story easily transports me to a time and place that I could never have been but always felt an emotional connection too. Indulge your inner "Harry Palmer" and you too will wish you were back in Russia during the 70's. You can practically smell the places described in this story.
I'm glad she made it back to Paris the second time .... but then again I would say that wouldn't I.