Between Revolutions: an American Romance with Russia
Tanya met me Saturday at a metro station and we rode a trolley to her region. We stood pressed together by the ticket dispenser; other passengers passed their change up and Tanya and I passed their tickets back to them. The honor system enforced by vigilant citizens. When a thick-faced laborer reached over Tanya's shoulder to turn the knob on the dispenser, Tanya squeezed his arm between her cheek and shoulder. "Oi!" she exclaimed, flaunting her English, confident he wouldn't understand, "what a rude peasant. And he smells."
Tanya lived far from the center of Moscow in a sprawling complex of boxy concrete apartment buildings. Tanya's region was new and the buildings jutted up from a muddy field without landscaping. Boris wasn't home when we arrived. "All my girlfriends are afraid of him," Tanya informed me. Despite the fact that Boris' skill with language had landed him a trade position responsible for Tanya's western clothes, they lived in a small one-bedroom apartment with a narrow balcony and a fold-out couch where their daughter slept. An enormous breakfront filled with knickknacks dominated the living room. Beige wallpaper of indeterminate print covered the walls. The kitchen was just large enough for a tiny table, but the walls sparkled with immaculate strawberry tiles that Tanya and Boris had put up themselves.
Boris came home. I was surprised to discover that this frightening "real man" was tiny, far shorter than Tanya or me, and fifteen years older than his young wife. His small eyes glinted fiercely when he shook my hand. He spoke some English as well as Finnish, and Tanya translated whenever his English or my Russian didn't suffice. The dinner conversation was less a dialogue than a polite grilling. Could I explain, please, the role of the Ku Klux Klan in America? Why was it that the American police protected them when they demonstrated? I tried to explain the concept of civil liberties without much success. "What kind of meat is this?" I asked to change the subject. "Is it pork?"
Boris peered at me intently. "You do not eat pork?"
"Yes, of course," I reassured him quickly. "I eat everything, though I hear that your Moslems in Central Asia do not."
Boris sliced firmly into his cutlet. "Now they do."
Tanya was oblivious. "I think it is quite unfair that I am stuck with the little children when Emma, whose English is no better than mine, gets to teach the upper form. I would lose my English, if it weren't for you, Lora. It's such a shame, it's simply a matter of privilege."
Boris broke into a furious barrage of Russian. I understood enough to make out that he was chiding her for speaking of privilege in front of a foreigner. Tanya lowered her head like a chastened girl, but when Boris went into the kitchen to get more wine, she looked up impishly. "He's very strict with me. But he's a real man, not like someone else we know..."
Boris returned, frowning. "Eat, Tanya, eat."
I was relieved when Tanya suggested we take a walk in the nearby forest while Boris went to pick up their daughter from her granny's. "We can smoke cigarettes," Tanya whispered. "Boris forbids me to smoke."
We escaped into the cool damp autumn air. We followed a path through firs and birches into a clearing set about with benches. Once seated, we lit up our illicit cigarettes. An old woman in a headscarf and a couple with a bounding collie strolled past.
"Boris likes you," Tanya said. "I can see it."
"I couldn't tell."
Tanya laughed. "He is a stern man, but I have no complaint with him really. Sometimes he beats me, but I need it. I am so bad. Perhaps I do not really love him, but then I am such a woman that I simply do not love anyone, not even my daughter I'm afraid. She much prefers her Papa. Lora, did you know that Grisha is my lover?"
"Grisha?" I was swept with jealousy. Had the "lessons" and the dinner only been an excuse for them to meet one another? How could Tanya be his lover when I already thought of him--potentially, anyway--as my own?
"Yes, the whole school knows it, I'm afraid. Grisha comes to see me in my classroom every chance he gets. It has been so for a year already. Of course I would never marry such a man. I do not respect him. He speaks English very well, of course, but he is always complaining. You see, he does not like our country. He would like to leave. I cannot understand that. We have problems, but every country has problems. I could never ever leave. I'd miss my flat so!"
"I couldn't leave my country either," I said faintly.
"You see, Lora, Grisha is no patriot. It is because he is a Jew. They have no loyalty. I am like my husband, I suppose. He does not think highly of Jews. They are greedy, you see. But Grisha is wonderful in bed. So hot, like a Georgian. And he has hair all over his body!"
I flushed and stared down at Boris' shoes with their over-sized, grommeted lace-holes jutting out from the ends of my legs. I didn't know which was worse, Tanya's anti-Semitism or the fact that she was Grisha's lover.
"Poor Lora. I don't know how you can stand to be alone at night in your hotel. We must find you a nice Russian boy." Tanya giggled.
"Aren't you afraid that Boris will find out about Grisha?" With some satisfaction, I pictured Boris beating them both. He looked like a man who could kill.
"He goes away often on trips. I'm sure that he has his women when he goes to Central Asia, Kazakhstan, Armenia. So why shouldn't I have a man? You see, Lora, the problem is that Boris is too much of a man. When he is home he wants me all the time. I must hide from him." She winked at me and threw her cigarette into the mud. "Well, we had better go back to the flat. Boris will be home with Anichka, and he'll accuse me of preferring you to my child."
I rose numbly and ground out my cigarette. Tanya probably expected me to share some matching confidence. What could I tell her, that I secretly lusted for Grisha and I too was a greedy Jew? Or that Grisha had invited me on an outing to Kolomenskoye, our little secret? Even if I wanted to confide in Tanya I couldn't now because I'd let her say shameful things about Jews without speaking up. The strange thing was that I still liked her. Tanya didn't know what she was saying, parroting her husband's words.
Tanya grasped my arm. "Oh, I am so happy you are here. You are so good, Lora, far better than I. I want to be like you. Do you know the expression, nash chelovyek? It means our person, one of us. You are nash chelovyek, Lora. If only you lived in Moscow always, we would be such good friends!"