Moscow but Dreaming

Chapter 5

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There were no lines snaking around the building, like you would see at the American embassy—not surprising really, because no one wanted to immigrate to Tunisia and everyone was gagging for Brooklyn. I’ve been, I traveled—and I don’t know why anyone would voluntarily live in Brighton Beach, that sad and gray throwback to the provincial towns of the USSR in the seventies, fringed by the dirty hem of a particularly desperate ocean. The irony is of course that every time you’re running from something, it follows you around, like a tin can tied to dog’s shaggy tail. Those Brooklyn inhabitants, they brought everything they hated with them.

That was the only reason I stayed here, in this cursed country, in this cursed house, and now stood at the threshold, staring at the blue uniforms and shining buttons of two strapping Tunisians—guards or attachés, I wasn’t sure—and I wasn’t running anywhere, not to Brooklyn, nor to distant and bright Tunisia with its ochre sands and suffocating nights. Instead, I said, “I heard you’re hiring night watchmen.”

They showed me in and let me fill out the application. There were no pens, and I filled it out with the stubby pencil I usually carried with me, wetting its blunt soapy tip on my tongue every few letters—this way, my words came out bright and convincing. As much as it chafed me, I put Danila’s name as a reference.

They called me the next day to offer me the job, and told me to come by after hours two days later.

It was May then. May with its late sunsets and long inky shadows, pooling darkness underneath the blooming lilac bushes, and clanging of trams reaching into the courtyard of the house in Malaya Nikitskaya from the cruel and dirty world beyond its walls. I entered in a shuffling slow walk—not the walk of old age, but of experience.

And yet, soon enough there I was. As soon as the wrought iron gates slammed shut behind my back, I felt cut off from everything, as if I had really escaped into glorious Carthage squeezed into a five-storied mansion and the small garden surrounding it. A tall diplomat and his wife, her head wrapped in a colorful scarf, strolled arm in arm, as out of place in Moscow as I would be in Tunisia. They did not notice me, of course—after you reach a certain age, people’s eyes slide right off of you, afraid that the sight of you will corrupt and age their vision, and who wants that?

So I started at the embassy—guarding empty corridors, strolling with my flashlight along the short but convoluted paths in the garden, ascending and descending stairs in no particular order. Sometimes I saw one diplomat or another walking down the hall to the bathroom, their eyes half-closed and filled with sleep. They moved right past me, and I knew better than to say anything—because who wants to be acknowledged while hurrying to the john in the middle of the night. So I pretended that I was invisible, until the day I saw the naked girl.

Of course I knew whose house it was—whose house it used to be. I remembered Lavrentiy Beria’s arrest, back in the fifties, his fat sausage fingers on the buttonless fly, holding up his pants. Khrushchev was so afraid of him, he instructed Marshal Zhukov and his men who made the arrest to cut off the buttons so that his terrible hands would be occupied. It should’ve been comical, but it was terrible instead, those small ridiculous motions of the man whose name no one said aloud, for fear of summoning him. Worse than Stalin, they said, and after Stalin was dead they dared to arrest Beria, his right hand, citing some ridiculous excuses like British espionage and imaginary plots. The man who murdered Russians, Georgians, Polacks with equal and indiscriminating efficiency when he was the head of NKVD, before it softened up into the KGB. And there he was then, being led out of the Presidium session, unclean and repulsive like a carrion fly.

He was shot soon after, they said, but it was still murder; at least, I thought so, seeking to if not justify, then comprehend, thinking around and around and hastening my step involuntarily.

Sometimes the attachés, while rushing for the bathrooms, left their doors ajar, illuminated by the brass sconces on the walls, their semicircles of light snatching the buttery gloss of mahogany furniture and the slightly indecent spillage of stiff linen, the burden of excess. But mostly I walked the hallways, thinking of everything that happened in this house, so I wasn’t all that surprised or shocked when I first saw the naked girl.

She must’ve been barely thirteen—her breasts uncomfortable little hillocks, her hips narrow and long. She ran down the hall, and I guessed that she did not belong—she did not seem Tunisian, or alive, for that matter. She just ran, her mouth a black distorted silent hole in her face, her eyes bruised. Her hair, shoulder-length, wheat-colored, streamed behind her, and I remember the hollow on the side of her smooth lean hip, the way it reflected light from my flashlight, the working of ropy muscles under her smooth skin. Oh, she really ran, her heels digging into the hardwood floors as if they were soft dirt, her fists pumping.

I followed her with the beam of my flashlight. I stopped dead in my tracks, did not dare to think about it yet, just watched and felt my breathing grow lighter. She reached the end of the hallway and I expected her to disappear or take off up or down the stairs, or turn around; instead, she stopped just before the stairwell, and started striking the air in front of her with both fists, as if there was a door.

She turned once, her face half-melting in the deluge of ghost tears, her fists still pummeling against the invisible door, but without conviction, her heart ready to give out. Then an invisible but rough hand jerked her away from the door—I could not see who was doing it, but I saw her feet leave the ground, and then she was dragged along the hardwood floors through the nearest closed door.

I stood in the hallway for a while, letting it all sink in. Of course I knew who she was—not her name or anything, but what happened to her. I stared at the locked door; I knew that behind it the consul and his wife slept in a four-postered bed. And yet, in the very same bed, there was that ghost girl, hairs on her thin arms standing on end and her mouth still torn by a scream, invisible hands pressing her face into a pillow, her legs jerking and kicking at the invisible assailant . . . I was almost relieved that I could not see him, even though the moment I turned and started down the hallway again, his bespectacled face slowly materialized, like a photo being developed, on the inside of my eyelids, and I could not shake the sense of his presence until the sun rose.

I soon found a routine with my new job: all night I walked through the stairwells and the corridors, sometimes dodging the ghosts of girls—there were so many, so many, all of them between twelve and eighteen, all of them terrible in their nudity—and living diplomats who stayed at the Embassy stumbling past the soft shine of their gold-plated fixtures on their way to the bathrooms. In the mornings, I went to a small coffee house to have a cup of very hot and sweet and black coffee with a thick layer of sludge in the bottom. I drank it in deliberate sips and thought of the heavy doors with iron bolts and the basement with too many chambers and lopsided cement walls no one dared to disturb because of what they were afraid to find buried under and inside of them. And then I hurried home, in case my son decided to call from his time zone eight hours behind, before he went to bed.

You know that you’re old when your children are old, when they have heart trouble and sciatica, when their hearing is going too so that both of you yell into the shell of the phone receiver. But most often, he doesn’t call—and I do not blame him, I wouldn’t call me either. He hadn’t forgiven and he never fully will, except maybe on his deathbed—and it saddens me to think that he might be arriving there before me, like it saddens me that my grandchildren cannot read Cyrillic.

I come home and wait for the phone to speak to me in its low sentimental treble, and then I go to bed. I close my eyes and I watch the images from the previous night. I watch seven girls, none of whom can be older than fourteen, all on their hands and knees in a circle, their heads pressed together, their naked bottoms raised high, I watch them flinch away from the invisible presence that circles and circles them, endlessly. I think that I can feel the gust of Beria’s stroll on my face, but that too passes.

I only turn away when one of them jerks as her leg rises high in the air—and from the depressions on the ghostly flesh I know that there’s a hand seizing her by the ankle. He drags her away from the circle as she tries to kick with her free foot, grabbing at the long nap of the rug, as her elbows and breasts leave troughs in it, as her fingers tangle in the Persian luxury and then let go with the breaking of already short nails. I turn away because I know what happens next, and even though I cannot see him, I cannot watch.

Morning comes eventually, and always at the time when I lose hope that the sun will ever rise again. I swear to myself that I will not come back here. Never again, I whisper—the same oath I gave to myself back before the war, and just like back then I know that I will break it over and over, every night.

On my way out of the light blue embassy house, I occasionally run into the cook, a Pakistani who has been working there for a few years. We sometimes stop for a smoke and he tells me about a bag of bones he found in the wall behind the stove some years back. He offers to show it to me but I refuse politely, scared of the stupid urban legend about a man who buys a hotdog and inside finds his wife’s finger bone with her wedding ring still on. The ghosts are bad enough.

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