Boy on the Bridge, Page 2Natalie Standiford
That’s what did it.
These people were crazy! Even Richard Nixon — the worst president in American history — would never kill one of his children.
She decided that day to study Russian, the language of violence, terror, and absurdity. She knew she would never be bored.
And someday she would go to Russia to see it all for herself.
* * *
She showed her passport and student ID to Ivan, the guard who sat in a glassed-in booth in the dormitory entrance, keeping people who didn’t belong there — all Soviets except for a few carefully chosen, officially approved university students — away from the tantalizing foreigners. Ivan also guarded the one telephone in the building. Laura was only allowed to call her parents twice over the course of the semester, unless there was an emergency. She had to make an appointment weeks in advance and hope her parents were home when she called, or else she’d have to wait for the next appointment to talk to them. And the calls were outrageously expensive.
Back in the States, in college, her parents had called her every Sunday. She’d resented it, their nosy questions, their hopeful prying. She told them about her classes and her friends, leaving out details like that she was hungover from Saturday night’s party, or that she was crazy about a senior named Josh, who, so far at least, didn’t seem all that crazy about her.
Now that she couldn’t just pick up a phone and call her parents, she missed them. She missed her college roommate, Julie, who kept telling her Josh was an asshole. And she missed Josh, who was an asshole sometimes, but other times he had a midnight magnetism, a way of making romance out of ordinary moments, that she could really use right now. They’d play heated rounds of Space Invaders in the Grad Center Bar, share a pitcher of beer and some kisses at the jukebox, arguing over whether to play the Clash or Rick James. They might end up in his off-campus apartment, stretched out on the ratty couch in the candlelight with a streetlamp shining in through the window, sharing a joint. That was when Josh would start to drift away from her, and she’d feel an ache she didn’t understand. But she missed even that, the drift and the ache.
She walked up the dingy dorm stairwell, beige walls smudged and peeling, to the third floor, where the Americans and the Hungarians lived with their Soviet roommates. The halls were lit with long strips of fluorescent lights, bright and depressing, and the linoleum was littered with chicken bones, cockroach casings, and gray balls of dust.
Donovan Platt rolled by, tipping his cowboy hat to her, his long black hair in a ponytail. “Afternoon, ma’am,” he drawled. He was on his way out to conduct his mysterious business, tall and lanky in blue jeans, jean jacket, down vest, cowboy hat, and cowboy boots.
“Where are you off to?” Laura asked idly, just to see how he’d answer. Theoretically the American students were supposed to speak Russian to one another all the time, but none of them did. After a long day of grappling with dense Russian consonants, the slangy ease of English rushed out of her, a glorious relief.
“I’ve got some people to see, business to attend to.”
“All right, then.” Donovan had arrived in September with a small group of American students who’d planned to study in Leningrad for a whole year. By the time Laura’s group had arrived in January, half of them were gone, unable to stand the conditions any longer. The ones who’d stayed had gone crazy. Donovan didn’t bother with classes anymore. He was dealing on the black market — currency, jeans, even drugs, Laura had heard — making tons of money. If caught, he could end up in a Soviet prison that made American jails look like Club Med. For ordinary Soviets, having foreign money in their possession automatically meant prison. Planting Western currency on an unsuspecting citizen was a time-honored way to frame someone. The authorities dealt with the Westerners who provided the money on a case-by-case basis, but everyone knew it was a serious offense. Donovan didn’t seem to care.
Lydia Macy, another year-long student hanging on by her fingernails, shuffled by in a flannel nightgown and fuzzy blue slippers, her hair stringy and limp. “Hey, Lydia,” Laura said.
“Hey.” Lydia ducked into the kitchen and put a pot of water on the stove for tea. She was bony and wild-eyed. She never left the dorm, never even got dressed. She looked anorexic, but Donovan said the real problem was she’d drunk the tap water without boiling it. Now she had a parasite in her gut that she refused to treat.
“Are you going to the Hungarians’ party later?” Laura asked.
“They didn’t invite me.” Lydia sat down on a rickety chair and picked at a sticky clump of fuzz on her slipper.
“I’m sure Ilona would invite you if she saw you. It’s Barto’s birthday.”
The kettle boiled. “I hate birthday parties.” Lydia poured water into her mug. “What’s up with your roommate, anyway?”
“Which one?” Laura lived with Karen and Ninel, a Spanish major from the Ukraine.
“The bitchy one. I was feeding sardines to a couple of the cats and she came out and yelled at me for wasting good food on strays.”
“That’s Ninel. She’s weird,” Laura said. “She likes to follow the rules.” The dorm was riddled with rules: a ten o’clock curfew, no guests allowed, no spending the night outside the dorm, no loud music …
“So do most of the clones they put in this dorm, but she’s more robotic than any of them.”
“She probably wanted to eat the sardines herself.” Tins of sardines were hard to come by, unless you were a foreigner who could shop at the special stores. To Ninel they would have been a treat.
“If I want to give my sardines to some cats, what business is it of hers?”
“Why don’t you come to the party tonight?” Laura said. “At least get dressed. It might make you feel better.”
“I feel fine.” She sipped her tea and crossed her legs one over the other, swinging the top leg up and down like a scissors blade.
“Chiquitas.” Maureen Binkowski, known as Binky, duckwalked in and looked around in bewilderment, as if she expected to find a refrigerator in the kitchen, even though she knew better. “I would murder for a Tab right now. I always have a Tab and a Ring Ding every day at four o’clock. This is killing me. I don’t know how I’m going to make it through the evening.”
“Have some tea,” Lydia suggested.
“I’m so sick of tea I could puke.” Binky looked like she’d just arrived by spaceship. She was tiny, with large pink glasses and a poofy fro of yellow hair. She wore a bright orange down coat and blue-and-silver moon boots everywhere she went. “In fact, if I did puke, it would be nothing but tea.”
“You miss Tab? Just wait.” Lydia began to laugh, quietly at first, then louder and kind of like a maniac. Binky looked at Laura over Lydia’s shaking head, her eyes wide behind her oversized old-lady glasses.
The Americans loved to complain about all the things they missed from home, but they had come to this land of deprivation voluntarily. Most of them were required to spend some time in the USSR as Russian Studies majors. None of them had realized how hard it would be to go without the comforts they took for granted.
“Yeah. I’ll see you at the party.” Binky hurried out, and Laura followed. She could still hear Lydia cackling as she walked down the hall and went into the triple room she shared with Karen and Ninel. Ninel sat at the round table in the center, studying Spanish grammar. Laura plopped down on her narrow metal bed. “Privyet, Nina.” Everyone called her Nina for short, which was a relief, since Ninel was such a strange name. Laura didn’t notice until Karen pointed it out to her: Ninel was Lenin spelled backward.
Nina had an older sister named Elektrifikatsia and a brother named Traktor. She kept a photo of her family on her nightstand. They posed, stiff and formal, in a photographer’s studio, against a backdrop of waving wheat.
“Good evening, Laura.” Laura and Karen always spoke Russian with Nina because she didn’t speak English. “What did you learn in school today?”
“Hmm.” Laura tried to remember what
she’d learned in her Russian classes that day. “In Phonetics we learned how to sing ‘Moscow Nights,’ and in Grammar we read an article about how washers and dryers are plentiful throughout the Soviet Union.”
“Interesting.” Nina nodded as if she really found that interesting.
Nina had grown up outside Kiev. She was studying Spanish and wanted to be a Spanish teacher in Siberia, where, she said, it was nice and quiet. She made it sound like there’d be lots of chances to speak Spanish in Siberia. Maybe she even believed it.
Laura sat on her bed and started her homework. This is what she wrote (translated into English):
A Typical Day at My American University
I go to Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. On a typical day I get up around ten o’clock, in time for Comparative Literature class, which starts at eleven o’clock. I don’t choose classes that start early because I don’t like to get up in the morning. After “Comp Lit,” as we call it for short, I go to the Blue Room to get coffee and listen in on my fellow students. They talk about urgent issues like how much money their parents spent on their little sisters’ sweet sixteen parties, or which expensive private school has the best lacrosse team. As you can see, American life is very decadent. But then, you already knew that.
After lunch, if I feel like it, I go to my Russian Literature class, followed by a class known as Clapping for Credit, where all we do is watch movies. Then I might meet my boyfriend, Josh, at the Grad Center Bar for a beer and waste a few hours playing video games. I return to my dorm at eleven or so and read for a couple of hours before passing out on my bed still wearing my clothes.
And that’s a typical day at my American university. The end.
Laura read over the essay, correcting grammar mistakes. What she’d written was true and not true. She thought about the things she didn’t mention, the spaces between the lines where her real life happened.
Like, if she ran into Josh at lunch, she might not make it to her afternoon classes. He might lure her to the Grad Center Bar for just one game of Space Invaders, which would lead to another and another, and maybe a pitcher of beer, until it was dark outside and they’d missed dinner. So they’d order a pizza and go back to his off-campus apartment. If his roommates were out, they’d veg in front of the TV until Josh started pawing her. They’d end up in his room, and she’d spend the night. In the morning, he’d make her a cup of coffee and send her on her way, even if she didn’t have any morning classes. He always said he had a lot to do that day.
If his pretty roommate, Alison, was home, Josh would sit on the couch and talk to her and they’d trade inside jokes and basically ignore Laura until eleven or so, when Laura would start wondering if Josh wanted her to stay over or not. If he was still flirting with Alison at midnight, Laura would give up and go home, and Josh wouldn’t seem to mind. In fact, she got the feeling he was relieved. She’d walk home through the quiet, tree-lined streets of College Hill feeling confused and lonely. Back at Laura’s dorm, her suitemate giggling with her boyfriend behind her closed door, she’d put the radio on “Jazz After Hours,” and read until she fell asleep.
Still, she missed it. Having a room all to herself. Doing whatever she pleased. No rigorous schedule full of classes and field trips. Potable tap water. Pizza. Jazz on the radio. Josh.
Karen came in with a box of soft cookies and a couple of bottles of fizzy water.
“You remembered mineral water — thank God,” Laura said.
“You can actually taste the minerals!” Karen joked. The water did have a strong metallic taste.
“Yes, thanks to God that you don’t have to drink the same water everyone else drinks,” Nina said. “The sacred water that saved millions of lives during the Great Patriotic War.”
Nina was great with the conversation stoppers. Laura hardly dared to look at Karen for fear they’d both burst out laughing. Not that World War II was funny …
Laura grabbed her toothbrush and reached for a bottle of mineral water. “Like I said, thank God.” Then off to the sink room to brush her teeth.
When she came back to change for the party, she found Alyosha’s number in the pocket of her cords. She looked at the neat, strangely blocky letters and felt a little gush of happiness at the memory of how he’d rescued her that afternoon. Finally, something interesting had happened.
She looked around for a safe place to hide the paper. In the end, she decided her pocket was the safest spot.
In Laura’s Literature class the next day, they read a Pushkin poem, “To a Foreign Lady.” Her classmates were her fellow Americans: Karen, Binky, Dan, and a few of the other undergrad language students. By college, a Russian student would know most of Pushkin’s work by heart. Laura was reminded of Alyosha when she read the lines, “In language you won’t comprehend, I write this verse to say good-bye …”
Not that she needed a reminder.
Don’t call him today, she warned herself. It’s too soon. Wait until next week.
But she felt restless, and she didn’t trust herself to heed her own advice. Here she was in a foreign country, sitting in class with a bunch of other Americans, just like she would be at home. Reading about love.
Pathetic, that’s what it was. Timid. Boring. She was wasting her youth — her “fleeting youth,” as Pushkin might have said.
Fleeting. No time to waste.
She longed for something to happen to her. Something exciting. It was up to her to make it happen, to take chances. Take action.
If she couldn’t find an adventure in Russia, she deserved to be bored.
When classes ended for the day, she left the university without stopping for lunch. She bypassed the pay phone in the hall, bypassed the phone booth outside the cafeteria. Karen caught up with her at the OGNEOPASNO! sign and asked, “Where are you off to in such a hurry?”
“No hurry. I’m just restless.”
“I know what you mean; I can’t get out of class fast enough.”
Laura wanted to tell Karen about Alyosha. She ached to tell someone. But it was better to wait. She’d only known Karen a couple of weeks. What if she called Alyosha and he didn’t remember her? What if they planned to meet and he stood her up? There were so many ways this situation could turn out to be humiliating. The fewer people to witness it, the better.
She was glad to have Karen’s company for the trek over the Builders’ Bridge, though. The gypsies didn’t bother them now. They cowered on the other side of the bridge, their long scarves flapping in the wind, and did not approach.
“What’s up with the gypsies?” Karen asked. “I’ve been practicing my brush-off. Look.” Karen walked briskly forward, swinging her arms and keeping her eyes straight ahead, muttering, “No, no, no, sorry, no.”
Laura laughed. “Impressive.”
“Right? So now they’re not going to give me a chance to brush them off? How diabolically clever.” Karen dared to glance back at the coterie. “They look almost … spooked.”
“Weird,” Laura said. She smiled to herself. They were afraid of her now.
Russian gypsies afraid of her.
On the other side of the river, Karen turned toward the dorm as usual, but Laura paused.
Walk five blocks past the dorm, she thought, remembering his instructions. At least five blocks …
“Home sweet home,” Karen said. “Aren’t you coming?”
Maybe she shouldn’t call him. What was with the secrecy? Who was he, really?
“Hello? Laura? It’s freezing out….”
Maybe he was a womanizer, racking up notches on his bedpost. Maybe he was a spy. A double agent! Or just a jerk.
She shouldn’t call him. But she would anyway.
“I’m going to go for a walk,” Laura said.
“A walk?” Karen pulled her scarf over her nose and shivered. “In this weather?” It was getting dim, and the moisture in the air sparkled and bit at their exposed skin. “You’re either part polar bear or you’re crazy.” She hurried in
side without waiting for an answer from Laura about her possible ursine parentage or mental illness.
“I’m crazy!” Laura shouted after her, but Karen disappeared inside without looking back, the heavy brown door slamming shut behind her.
Laura walked down the street, away from the river, glancing around to see if anyone was following her. People gaped at her in her sheepskin coat, but no one seemed to be trailing her.
She passed a line of men waiting for kvass to be dispensed like oil from a tanker truck. She passed a busy bakery and a tobacco shop. She walked five blocks, then one more for good measure, until she found a red phone booth. She looked around once more for spies, but the coast was clear. She pulled Alyosha’s number from her coat pocket, slotted a two-kopeck coin into the phone, and dialed before she had a chance to change her mind.
“Allo. Is this Alyosha?” Laura asked in Russian. It felt strange to speak Russian over the phone. She had to concentrate to remember the words.
“Is this Laura?”
Her accent must have given her away. “It’s Laura. How are you?”
“I’m very well. And you?”
It was just like a practice conversation in class. “I’m fine, thank you.”
A silence followed. She thought he’d know why she was calling, but if he did, he didn’t say so.
“Um, so, I’m calling to see if you would like to meet with me sometime. To practice speaking Russian. As you can hear, I need practice badly.”
“Not so badly. Yes, let’s meet. When are you free?”
“Every afternoon after three.”