Know ye, now, Bulkington? Glimpses do ye seem to see of that mortally intolerable truth; that all deep, earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea; while the wildest winds of heaven and earth conspire to cast her on the treacherous, slavish shore?
I don’t remember the flights. I don’t remember being cold, although I must have been cold. I do remember viewing Lenin’s Tomb, although I remember it in such a hazy and provisional way that it’s possible I’m just imagining it. It was February, 1989, and I was in Russia on a school trip with the other students in my high school’s Russian program. We were not supposed to buy things on the black market, said one of our teachers, who then sheepishly purchased an army jacket on the black market. We were there at the end-ish—we didn’t know—of the Soviet Union, unable to imagine the past, present, or future of the place we stood in. We were American high school students on a foreign language trip staying in hotels otherwise frequented by businessmen and hookers, with considerable freedom to wander around foreign cities on our own. From our point of view, the dismantling of the Soviet Union was a time of sexual tension, personal growth, and fun.
By choosing to room with each other and not, either of us, with her, Angela and I confirmed what Katharine had known, but tried not to admit to herself, but had been resentful of, ever since she moved to our town from the Midwest, which was that Angela and I were the real friends and she was the third wheel. She had to room with Elissa, who wouldn’t share her maxipads because she was afraid she wouldn’t have enough when her period came. Maxipads! Not even tampons. Meanwhile, Angela, whose boots always needed an assistant to remove, and I fought several battles of our own. After one, I walked out of the hotel and crossed underneath the highway that separated it from the Museum of the Siege of Leningrad, where I wandered around, trying to read the labels on the displays and feeling alone in the world. Boohoo, contextually speaking. After another screaming match, the football player staying in the room next to us came in wearing his boxer shorts to try to broker a peace. He was good looking and the underpants thing was distracting. Angela and I set about making ourselves less opinionated and difficult and more interesting and fun-loving, stat.
I lost a pound a day on that trip, which was like, Thanks Soviet Union, for your easy diet plan! At meals I sat with a group of funny boys who played with their mashed potatoes. One of them wasn’t important, one of them threw all the windows open in his hotel room so the curtains billowed in and out, sneered at people who didn’t know Sting’s “Little Wing” was a cover (I totally knew that), and also went missing for a day and a half while looking for and possibly finding, allegedly, hash, and one of them had a crush on me that I publicly rejected. He became someone else’s nice boyfriend when we got back, while I continued to wander around in a virginal fever until graduation and then for an additional period of time I’m not going to specify here. Not that virginity is anything important, meaningful, etc. Obviously not. Why would someone ever want to have penetrative vaginal sex for the first time?
Little Wing had his luggage tossed on the way out of the country.
We went to visit a Soviet high school, where we met, as one does, students our age who spoke English much better than we spoke their language. One of the boys exchanged numbers with Amelia, a girl the year behind me I considered impossibly dramatic and pretentious, even relative to the rest of us. They made plans for her to come to his apartment. Maybe because I was her only option, she asked me to come with her, and for some reason—not only were we not friends, but at heart I was (am?) a chicken—I said I would. Two boys picked us up at the hotel and we took the Metro across Moscow together. The number-exchanger was good-looking and an excellent English-speaker; his friend was dumpy and silent. I didn’t appreciate the implication, but whatever. The apartment was in an area that had nothing but tall identical apartment buildings. The boys made us mushroom soup and a second course I can’t remember. Maybe a salad? They did not serve us alcohol, although I had prepared myself for that possibility by worrying about it. After this uncomfortable meal, Amelia and the alpha guy went into another room and I sat on the couch with the beta friend for a while being like Now what? Because there is no universe in which I am making out with you. I don’t think we spoke. On the way back to the Metro the boys informed us that everyone in the neighborhood could tell we were Americans because we smiled. That was one of the only moments during the trip when I noticed something significant about the country I was in. Relatedly, I didn’t give anyone the presents I’d brought from the United States, which were copies of To Kill a Mockingbird and Sting’s latest album. They seemed embarrassing and juvenile, suitable only for dorks.
We went to the circus and I was so upset for the animals I had to step outside.
I don’t think that is the last thing that happened on the trip, but I remember it that way: Snow was falling, beautiful, silent, soft and and white. Angela and I had gone off on our own, but now we had to meet up with the rest of our group at a tourist shop near the Rossiya Hotel. Again, the rules on this school-sponsored trip retrospectively continue to surprise me. Why did we have so much free time? Why were we allowed to go wherever we wanted? I had been at a stranger’s apartment in Moscow without any supervision for hours. And now what would have happened if we hadn’t made it to the store in time? We didn’t have a map. We stopped someone to ask her how to get to the Rossiya, and she told us a set of directions, all of which, after the first, we either couldn’t understand or promptly forgot. So we’d walk a little while, ask someone for directions to the Rossiya, take the first direction, then stop someone and ask them directions to the Rossiya. We arrived, finally, at the top of a set of stone stairs that led down and then up again, and we could see across this little gully to the Rossiya Hotel. We burst into the store snow-covered and steaming with our success, to find everyone buying pins and flags from a country that to us was best understood as someone else’s mistake.