“You’re leaving,” Yulia says, blinking back a sudden tear, her smudged mascara.
The security guard has just buzzed me through the heavy glass doors of J.P. Morgan’s 8th floor entrance. Now, faced by the scene I’ve been dreading, I fight the impulse to ask him to buzz me out, then run to the metro.
Instead, I ask Yulia how she found out.
“Your school,” she says. Someone had phoned that day to inform my students I was to be replaced in two weeks.
I steer Yulia into a nearby conference room. Then I tell her the same lie I’d concocted for my school: my tenant at home broke her lease and I have to return to deal with that.
When she asks if I’ll come back to Moscow, I tell her, maybe. Another lie.
I’m pretty sure it was Yulia who, after I had finished one eight-month class at J.P. Morgan, requested me for another round. “For us lowly back-office people,” she’d laughed.
I’d been meeting with Yulia (as I’d had with most of my students) twice a week, ninety-minutes a session − that’s three hours a week for the last year-and-a-half. They’d told me about their families, their day-to-day difficulties, what makes them happy, what makes them sad.
I couldn’t just disappear. So for the last few months, I’d been waffling, postponing the decision that would trigger the goodbyes.
The truth was that I missed being home and having more time to write. I know, I know. I’m well aware of the irony of leaving to tell the stories of the people I’ve met (in this case, of my students who have fed me, both literally and psychically) from the safety of my desk at home.
“Surprisingly, no one had asked me what I thought about Obama. To the Russians, he seems a blip on the radar screen, yet another American president sure to become anti-Russian. But when I thought about a country where it’s possible to elect an Obama, comparing it to one where they kill journalists, I wondered…well, I simply wondered if Russians could ever be happy.
It was also Yulia who came up with the quips, like, “The whole world is celebrating our 1998 crisis by having a ten-year anniversary global crisis.”
“Where do you get these?” I’d asked.
She arched a perfectly-plucked eyebrow. (Yulia wins my award for “Best-groomed Woman,” which in Moscow is saying a lot.) “Oh, there are lots of jokes circulating around, about bankers working as garbage collectors and so forth,” she said.
“But seriously,” I ask Yulia at our final class, “aren’t things now, in some way, better? At least in Moscow, where there are the shops, the restaurants − the chance to live a more European lifestyle?”
“No question,” she says. “I can remember as a child how hard my parents worked − and my grandparents before them. They were always working. Of course, we had nothing, none of us did. They truly believed the government, when it told them they were working for a better life for their children.”
“We depend on each other,” she says.
Yulia also said that she thought the post-Soviet generation didn’t appreciate what their parents had gone through. Yet it seemed to me that the children I tutored felt a certain absence of place, a lack of intimacy − which meant that saying goodbye to them was worse.
“Take Sasha. At our first lesson, I wasn’t sure I could.
“English is so dull,” she says, fixing her concrete eyes on mine.
Intimidated by a ten-year-old, I thrust towards her the colorful “FUN!” book I’ve brought, probing for what grammar she knows.
She stops fiddling with her mouse, her computer game. “Present perfect. What’s that?”
She actually speaks English quite well, because her parents do. (Both her parents have earned law degrees in Britain.) But at Sasha’s school, where she’s had 4 years of English, “We learn nothing,” she says.
Nor does her school provide any extra-curricular activities. No wonder she’s bored stiff, and resistant to me − the bearer of more “nothing.” A little bird caged in her bedroom under the eaves with the hair on her Barbie dolls dyed Emo black, she makes me feel six, or seventy, I can’t decide which.
The “FUN” book helps, but later, what really turns Sasha on are the stories I ask her to write. Cities made of glass, castles by the sea, “lads” whipping her away on motorcycles, “Shall I go? Yes, yes, yes!” she writes.
But in real life (her last lines always reveal her secrets), “I’m a little grey mouse, who beeps in one’s mind, wants to live but can’t because I’m strong only in my dreams.”
I tell her to keep dreaming, keep writing because she is a natural, an artist.
Her silence makes me think she will remember what I said.
We also draw our own board games, with Sasha filling in the topics: “Your favorite trip,” “Your boy with the drippiest nose,” “Your most horrible city.”
“Moscow,” she says, giggling naughtily.
Of course, I have to tell Sasha I’m leaving. At our goodbye tea (and I’m pretty sure she’s fixed everything herself), she sets out platters of chocolate, sugared walnuts, string cheese and toast, hot dogs. (She still scares me a bit, so I eat two.)
She’s forgotten something. She dashes out of the kitchen, comes back with a porcelain figurine of two little girls holding hands. The box it comes in fills a shopping bag.
“Do you think you can manage them on the Metro? Without breaking them?” she asks.
Kirill, on the other hand, would say things like, “Oh, the passive voice. That’s fascinating!”
Not that we only hit the books, sometimes Kirill just wanted to talk. His friendship with Sergey, his best friend, seemed to trouble him.
“Oh? What’s Sergey like?”
“Well, he’s twelve, my age, has blonde hair and he’s very funny and he doesn’t like sports. Neither of us is very good at sports.”
“So do you guys get together after school?”
Kirill hesitates. “Sometimes.”
I ask if he has other best friends.
“Yesss…My father has a partner who has a girl my age. She’s very smart.”
Again, Kirill hesitates. “But I don’t see her much either. Maybe once a year.”
But he sees me twice a week! Well, I didn’t really like it when he’d spasm in his chair, bug his eyes out at me and say, “I am crrraazzy, very crrraaazzy.”
What the hell. I’d sing along, “They’re coming to take us away, ho-ho, hee-hee, ha-ha, to the funny farm…”
No need to lie to Kirill about my reason for leaving. “I understand,” he says. Then he looks on the Internet, and finds another teacher who wants five times as much money as I’ve been charging. “He’s the crazy one,” Kirill says.
After our last lesson, after the photo shoot, Kirill warns me, “Remember.”
“I remember,” I say. (He had said we shouldn’t say goodbye.)
“So! See you later,” he says.
On the elevator down, I also remember him telling me that he wasn’t an optimist, nor a pessimist − that he was a realist. And then I cry, for my friend I would never see again.
I depend on Megan to organize my leave party. (“Don’t worry,” she says. “Only a few people came to my one-year-in-Russia party. It’s better that way.”)
She picks a restaurant called Levsha’s, which, as is the Moscow fashion, is decorated “Soviet Farm Implement,” hoes and shovels affixed to its walls. Once we’re gathered, Anya says that Levsha means a left-handed person, a skilled and lucky guy, specifically the hero of a Russian folk tale. “He could shoe a flea and do other tricky stuff.”
This is appropriate, I think, to commemorate eighteen months spent with Russians. “My god,” I say, “I’ll miss you guys. Underneath it all, you’re really a sweet-tempered, sentimental lot. I mean, who buys more flowers in the world?”
“Oh, yah − the Russian soul,” Pasha says. “Mine is in my kidneys. I was jumping one day, my soul slid off to the side, I think it fell down there…somewhere.”
Stefan, whose Russian-born parents fled Stalin − Stefan himself returned after he met Anya − proposes a toast. Things will change for this country, he says. First of all, Wall Street is turning around, which is about six months ahead of the general U.S. economy, which is about six months ahead of the world economy.
And Russia has a population that is highly educated, has a good work ethic, he says.
“People will get fed up with the corruption, the lack of investment in small businesses. In the 90s, people had a taste of what normal life can be. Now, they will demand the opportunities, the choices, the freedoms they deserve.”
I could feel the hair rise on the back of my neck. There was silence around the table − a silence of exhilaration.
Then we went out into the night, up Kuznetsky Most where other people were walking in the gentle Sunday night, and down into the metro where Pasha gave a little jump of joy for the dream of the future.
At 7 a.m. the next morning, Anya and Stefan arrive at my apartment. Anya carries my backpack filled with books, Stefan my excess-weight suitcase, leaving me with my carry-on. We walk the six blocks to the metro (which are stairs, not escalator at my stop), take the metro to the end of the line, then a minivan to Sheremetevo.
They lug my baggage the whole way, right up to the gate marked “Passengers Only.” I’m so embarrassed, I can barely thank them.
“Forget it. You’d never make it in a taxi, not at rush hour,” Stefan says.
“Never mind. I have a day off,” Anya says.
We hug, and thus ends my eighteen months in Moscow, my sojourn into intimacy.