Here’s a little prosey essay that will mean nothing to almost everyone, but everything to me, because it just now slipped from my head, and it’s been knocking around in there for a while.
There are times of the year when I think of Moscow. I can go whole months and think of it only as an “other” place, as a foreign place, where Americans go as tourists. And then there comes a spring rain, when the sun shines at the same time, and I get washed in a feeling that stops me where I am and I realize that Moscow in June is Pennsylvania in April. It’s always a little behind the rest of the world, a city that moves at its own pace, but I love her like a dead uncle, like a lame dog, and affection fills my heart. I look up at the sky, thinking of her, and I say, “But remember, the Village Idiot was really a saint in disguise.” Because when I first think of her, it’s all roses and warm afternoons that I remember.
When Moscow comes, and it’s not very often these days anymore, but still, I stop washing the dishes. I stop reading the book. I stop at the stoplight just a little too long, and I pause inside the moment that’s held as fast and tight as a gray ghost. And if I pause, I lose her, so I have to chase her, and I’m transported from here to there, and I wonder if Moscow will ever leave me completely. If I will ever get to the place where I don’t think of it anymore, where I don’t share any secrets with it anymore. And she moves to he (but only very briefly) and then quickly to it and (and again briefly) to them, and it’s one big place again, a place that tries to squeeze it’s huge Red Square, it’s giant Holy Savior into my soul. Everyone’s first foreign city makes a bruise, leaves a scar, a tender song. Moscow is all three, because I wore her inside and out, and she wore me. Now we’re back to she.
I wonder, like one does about a recurring blemish after a long day in the sun– did Moscow become part of my DNA along the way ? Did I sip her into my bones when I drank that cloudy apartment water? Why does she pop up on my brain like a fevered childhood illness springing from dormancy? And why do I always smile when I think of her? I don’t smile when I think about the week I had the chicken pox. Moscow sometimes felt very much like the chicken pox, all hot-cold-humidity, endless nights, and itching beneath the sheets sewn in a Smolensk intelligentsia gulag.
I get similar feelings about the American West, the land where I was born. I feel this way in parts of Oregon, deep in the Siskiyou Mountains or along Coos Bay. I see my childhood, all the good and the bad things, the dreams that have remained and the dreams that have gone for good, and I feel something pop inside my heart, and I try to capture that moment. I try to hang on to it like water slipping through my fingers, like the sticky carnival ride that you’re high for, but for which you have no more tokens.
But then she hurts my thoughts like pierced balloons do when they break and smash against my eardrum, when I remember the coldness and all the locks without keys, the hallways with no windows, the doors that led to brick walls and the concrete walls stained with human rust. I hear the sounds of Moscow, and they leave the sweetness of childhood behind–the sounds of all the trains, of the Russian tongue, of the rain that falls as heavy and hard as boots outside Lenin’s tomb.
And this kind of day dreaming makes me think of how when I knew Moscow, she was a Soviet, and now she’s a millennial and I probably wouldn’t recognize her. More than just her priests and rabbis probably wear beards now. Now it’s everyone, her 20-year-olds, like in Brooklyn and Madrid. Moscow in the same league as Brooklyn and Madrid? Wait. Stop it. That’s ridiculous. That thought makes my head hurt, like how I heard banging on the roof one Christmas Eve when I was eight and never did figure out if the Santa-I-know-is-not-real actually landed there, or if some weird LA neighbor was loaded on ‘shrooms and just playing the part. Moscow is like that to me. Loaded and playing the part of others, in order to trick others, but her real self is old and strong and silently hidden inside the bushes and behind the birch tree forests, like Stretensky Monastery.
Perhaps, that’s why I feel a bit pained when I think of her–terrified, in love, pained. Moscow isn’t eternal. It’s just a city, a landscape with several million stone-faced people with shiny cars and slick hair (and beards). They used to drive Ladas and had pock-marked faces and spiky hair. But it’s not June 12, 1991 forever. Thank the Lord. That was an ugly time for all of us on all sides of the spring rainbow.
That was then, this is now. It’s a moment in world history I feel, with people who no longer exist, and I think that’s what catches me between the rib cage, the idea that I stood at the epic center of history while it moved along the banks of the Moskva, and even though I knew it was important, I couldn’t hold it there to show everyone, “See what’s happening! It’s a revolution! It’s tearing down and building up!” But only the people who watched the nightly news listened and few of them were moved beyond the gas left behind from their dinners. They don’t remember what they didn’t experience. They probably don’t even remember our conversations (now I’m talking like a Russian).
Just like I couldn’t hold the Oregon of my childhood in place on those rare warm coastal days, I can’t hold Moscow when it rains against the sunshine, even though I want to show her to people, the way I knew her, the way I saw her. But that can only be done in fiction now, because the KGB took my camera and my film, and I have only a passport with a faded stamp…
That place is history, and thank God for that.
The past is just an illusion now. Don’t chase it. It’s dead. It doesn’t exist anymore than the future does. Don’t chase that either. Right now, it’s just wind and not yet the storm of everything you’re planning.
I went to her like an American in Paris, only it’s an American in Moscow and I was graced with sun on the Arbat while others were covered in clouds on the swings at Gorki Park, and that’s the real Moscow. The Moscow that shines for a select few and rains on most everyone else. Not the Moscow on the Hudson Moscow or the Gorki Park movie Moscow or the Billy Joel Moscow, but the Moscow where the rain falls there just as it does here in Pennsylvania farm country, only two months later on Moscow time. And when the rain passes, I’m always glad I’m here and that Moscow is still very far over there.
And I realize, in those rare moments that stop me at the sink, at the stoplight, in the middle of the yard with the water spilling down over my cheeks while I look up at the clouds as if Moscow is actually hanging inside their fat droplets, that it’s impossible to go somewhere, at the epicenter of the world in a broken cocoon state, and not feel like you want to catch it and keep it there. But you know the story, caterpillars and all…they grow up, they move on, and writers make them into old stories that their grandchildren read.
Once upon a time, there was Moscow, and she was big and she was red and she was covered tight, all locked up in her high tower. But she grew tired of this and she blew the tower up and let her hair down, and now everyone drives a BMW and all dachas have been renovated to include marble counter tops and refrigerators to keep the pre-cut herring and French cream sauce cool for when the streaming movie is over.