Cities in dust
by Ray Nayler
[ fiction - march 08 ]
I: To a dear friend
"There is a tribe in the desert called the Touareg, whose name means lost souls. Yet their name for themselves is Imochagh, or free ones" - Paul Bowles
It took me several times reading your last letter before the hint - no, I would actually say the pall - of malice in your words finally sunk in. I sense not just a disapproval of what you call, in a way that cannot help but seem derogatory, my "nomadic lifestyle." The truth is, I often only skim your letters. I do not know when I started doing this, but I have a feeling that it was at around the point they seemed to develop a second voice of anger, a rising wail in the background. I think it was at this point that reading your letters became painful for me. At first, this anger did not seem directed at me but at the frustrations of your own suburban lifestyle. I can now see that I was quite wrong. You are indeed somehow, inexplicably, upset with me. I was not sure what it was that I had done to deserve this at first: now, I can clearly see how it is that I have become a thorn in your side. And I see now that my attempts to maintain contact with you, over the long distances that separate us, have only served to reinforce your anger at me, causing you to lash out at me in criticism. You criticise my "rootlessness" and my "wandering nature" and I especially noted, in this last letter, the part where you say the following: "While the rest of us struggle with the necessities of day-to-day life and our responsibilities to others, you are off gallivanting around the world in search of your 'soulmate' and some kind of romantic idea of bliss."
Buried two pages into your letter, this last sentence still leaped out at me, though perhaps not in the way that you intended it. This last sentence is, in fact, is why I reread your letter several more times. I suppose that it is useless to counter with simple truths, such as the fact that I am gainfully employed at a sufficient salary to cover my needs, have excellent benefits and health care, regularly wear a tie, et cetera et cetera. Or, the fact that I have never used and would never use the word 'soulmate' to describe anyone that I were to hope to have some sort of relationship with. Nor am I, actually, much inclined to use the word bliss for whatever it may be that I am seeking. None of these defences would, I think, serve to keep me in your club, none of them would make me less of an outsider to you.
You are probably noticing, at this point, my tone. If it seems condescending, I am only attempting to approximate your own level of condescension. After all - I think that I have been more than fair. In the interest of friendship, I have tolerated a number of criticisms of myself without rebuttal, and I have accepted what you consider your superior moral position without comment. However, nobody can tolerate being attacked indefinitely, so I do have a few things I would like to say. But I want you to listen, and I think that if I continue with the tone I have chosen for the outset of this letter, you will soon stop reading it. Instead, I would like to take you along with me on my latest trip to Russia. We can converse along the way.
One of the things that traveling halfway around the world will teach you is that the globe is a place that really has been made smaller by modern technology. The idea that one can travel, in 36 hours or less, 11 time zones from home, is extraordinary. I leave a soggy Washington DC drowned by rain. The metro is partially flooded, causing me a horrific three-hour trip through the humid bowels of the city, followed by sitting on the tarmac while torrential rains press down on the plane.
I am not, at this point, alone. I am escorting 50 Russian students back to Moscow. There is another person from our company escorting 40-odd Ukranians to Kiev, so the entire plane is full of bright blue T-shirts, singing, and the inevitable complaints in all common languages. After some sort of inscrutable luggage issue we finally taxi to the runway 2 hours late, and I know already that we are doomed to miss our connections in Frankfurt. I try not to think of it, turning my intention instead to engaging my neighbor, a 16-year old Russian girl from the Far East named Dasha, in conversation. Dasha has gotten hair extensions and dreadlocks in the United States, and her hair is enormous, jet-black and bright red tangled braids that frame her face. She is a talker, so the conversation takes little effort from me as she guides it through the Doors to JD Salinger to Linkin Park and back to the classic Soviet band Akvarium, and I notice idly that I have begun to recognise the Lufthansa cabin attendants, who, an hour into the flight, walk down the aisle with your choice of lasagna or chicken, salad with Balsamico Dressing, Bergspitz cheese triangles, rolls with Meggle Alpen Butter, and a tiny soccer-ball candy to advertise Germany's hosting of the world cup. Wir wunschen Ihnen gutten Appetit.
After Washington and the vague Teutonic nausea of Frankfurt airport, returning to Moscow is a shock. The airport is choked with bottom-feeders, gypsies, cab drivers cruising for foreign suckers, working class Russian families whose faces look mutilated under the glare of fluorescent light, waiting for relatives with improvised hand luggage cobbled together from ropes and plastic bags. I drive through the streets in the passenger seat of a taxi, half dead from exhaustion. Moscow sprawls around me, traffic-choked, reeking of unfiltered tailpipe, massive, criminal. The sidewalks teem with skinny women in geometric, extravagantly awkward shoes and men in sleazy mustaches and work-rubbed hands.
Two hours, a taxi and a train ride later, I am on another plane, headed into the Russian Ural Mountains. I will arrive at the Yekaterinburg airport at 1:40 a.m on Wednesday the 28th, having left my home in Washington DC on Monday, the 26th of June at 12:00 p.m. The sky is still light somehow in Yekaterinburg, the sunset and twilight blending into the eventual dawn, and as we drive into the city I engage my taxi driver in conversation, talking about life here and the city itself. On the highway into town there is the clean smell of rain that has just fallen, and the bone under shadow of birch forest.
I have just read your letter for the third or fourth time and I am, at this moment, mentally composing sentences in response, but there is nothing coherent yet, except that I keep wondering what you are doing right now. I am exhausted, somewhere in the Russian hinterland, conversing with a cabbie about life. And you, who felt completely justified in criticising me, are where? California is 13 hours behind, so you are probably shopping for something, with the stroller of your youngest bumping the legs of others. Since your husband takes care of the money end of things, that leaves you with the children. This is your "necessities of day-to-day life" that you spoke about - shitty diapers and processed food, the hell of constant purchasing. This is the main discomfort I think, of your life - these constant trips to the store to buy more goods. Though you complain often and at length about the difficulty of your own existence, the hardwood floors in your suburban home are well-finished. Spills come up easy. You are firmly in the middle class, and your husband's job, on the well-manicured campus of a computer firm in your well-manicured world, is quite secure. Your university education in Literature may be going to waste, but one day you are going to write that book you told me about, aren't you? The one you were planning to write long ago, when you and I were drunk on the beach in Santa Cruz, 3 a.m., jabbing at the seaweed with sticks and planning, in grand ironic detail, our future lives.
The tone of your letter seems to imply in some way that you, or people like you, suffer through dull daily lives precisely so that I can have the privilege of travel. I wonder if you realise how ridiculous this idea is. Do you honestly believe that your existence as a suburban homemaker is related at all to anything but itself? Do you think there is some sort of relation between us? That you are bearing an extra burden because I move too much to sign a year lease?
The most shocking thing is that, although you adopt a tone of martyrdom when describing your daily activities, although you describe them always with distaste, you have the gall to push them on me. As if, poisoned, you would offer someone else a bite from the same dish. This strikes me a sort of low Puritanism - this idea that if it hurts, if it is unpleasant, if it involves the compromise of the self, then it is good. It is this, in fact, that first cued me to the fact that our friendship was ending. It was your suggestion that I "settle down" into a lifestyle comparable to your own, when you know in your heart of hearts that neither you nor I is suited to such an existence.
I worry about you there. The narrowing of your mind, which is a particularly fine one, is visible on the pages that you send me. I don't want our connection to burn out, E. For your sake as well as for my own, I think it is important that we understand one another. We once, after all, understood each other so well.
II: The cast iron shore
Yekaterinburg, Russian Federation, 26 June
"I think the most important characteristic you and I have in common (although you'd be within your rights in claiming that we have no points in common) is a conviction that the human race has entered into a terminal period of disintegration and destruction, and that this will end in a state of affairs so violent and chaotic as to make any attempts at maintaining government or order wholly ineffective." - Paul Bowles, "Unwelcome Words," 1985-1986
Yekaterinburg's skyline is dominated by an unfinished, rotting communications tower, like something out of a post-apocalyptic Japanese cartoon. Where sheets of metal have plummeted away, the tower's oxidised skeleton shows. Someone has climbed it, at what seems like an incredible risk to life and limb, and painted their name in red just under the rebar-bristling, rusted crown. Weathered metal and weeds, half-finished demolitions, the town confronts one with a shocking ugliness. Cars and sidewalks and people alike seem shellacked in grey filth. However, there are signs that things might be turning around for Yekaterinburg. The fingerbones of cranes jut up from the skyline, erecting bland glass-encased towers here and there. This is a perfectly fitting town for the czars's family to have been shot in. On the spot where it happened - where Bolshevik machine guns put an end to royal women and children and the weak-willed czar alike, a cathedral has been erected - one of the only marks of beauty in the city.
Rather than smelling like stale cigarettes, as some hotels do, the hotel room at the Sverdlovsk smells like an invisible person is sitting at the foot of the bed, smoking and blowing the smoke in my face. I was afraid that, having quit just a few months ago, coming to Russia would make me want to smoke again. After all, being only a few months removed from my own habit, the sight of people smoking should logically awake the old urge in me. However, the real effect has been quite different. In Sheremetova 2, the international terminal of the Moscow airport system, taxi drivers suck at cigarettes dangling from their ravaged faces. At Paveletsky train station, the ground outside is shellacked with layers of cigarette butts and ashy filth. Everywhere in Russia, one seems to breathe the grey clods exhaled by others' lungs. Cigarettes, and the stale reek of them, are part of the general malaise of daily life here, adding to the filth of the litter-strewn, cracked and lumpy streets, sticking out of misshapen, scarred faces, dangling from paws rubbed raw by poverty and black work, deformed by fire and accident. On the train platform a sunburned ten-year-old boy in a filthy cast-off track suit sucks at one as he walks into an awful future. In Russia, nothing could make me happier than not smoking. The association with dissolution, sleaze and graft that smoking has is too close. There is no glamour or pleasure to it here - only the raw addiction itself, and its many end-products, mashed by the millions into the pavement.
Walking down the streets with Bella and Lena after picking them up from the train station, Lena asks me what I think about Yekaterinburg.
"Well, it seems about the same as any other mid-sized Russian city."
"Yes it is about the same as Novosibirsk."
"The same buildings, you know, the same streets. Any where you go in Russia, you feel like you are home."
"Yes," Lena says with bitterness. "But you do not have to live here."
Later, sitting on a park bench, Lena tells me that it was not always this bad. People used to keep things up here. Yes, the buildings may not have been built of the best materials, but people picked up the trash and kept things in repair. We sit under pine trees. At our feet the earth is strewn with cellophane wrappers, bottle tops and beer bottles mashed into the dirt. There are many families walking down the paths of this homely Soviet-era park A baby in a white bonnet leans out from her stroller, pondering the motile magic of the wheel. The playground is painted in bright colors that, over the years, have faded. What impression does Yekaterinburg leave on the visitor? It looks like hooligans have been hammering away at it with iron bars for the last 15 years.
"They should not mess with me, I am from the North," Lena says, laughing, in her thickly accented English. She has never gotten a hold of the English r or v or th sounds, or the short English a. When she says she is from the North, she means it: Lena is from Na'rilsk, a town in the tundra, without roads or rail lines into it. Everything must be shipped in by plane or, in the spring, by cargo ship. In February, Lena says, nobody goes outside for a month. Winter completely claims the streets. The wind howls, the earth is a frozen crust. From September until June, there is snow. In this factory town, where the main industry is the processing of nickel, with all of its resulting pollutants leached into the soil and water, many of Lena's generation cannot give birth. And if they can, they may have a baby with severe birth defects, or a dead one. There, the program was something that everyone waited for each year - a ticket out of the frozen wastes. But when Lena's ticket came, it was to Tennessee, and a family of Pentecostals who went to church three times a week, rolling around on the floor and speaking in tongues. Her family made Lena clean their entire house twice a week, and could not even be bothered to take her to volleyball practice. Lena leans back, buzzed off one beer in the hotel room, and her anger spills over.
"My life was so bad, and they sent me to that." Blonde, blue-eyed, she is angry but still smiling. "Can you believe it?"
Lena made me think of you again. I remember you in high school with me, both of us down at the creek sneaking a cigarette between classes, amid the tangled roots of trees and the litter of other students. The thing I remember most about you was the angry movement of your hands at all times. I remember you stabbing your cigarettes out on the ground, concentrating on it, as if you were crushing an insect. As if you could hurt them. And of course there is the physical resemblance between you and Lena, both of you tall and fair. But something in her gestures that night brought you to life for me again. We were both so angry then, for muddled reasons, the anger undirected, a physical thing. We were angry at the suburbs, we were angry at our school, our teachers, the football team, the wind in the Fremont morning. But knowing you, I know this anger, such a part of your personality, has not gone away for you. Certainly my own anger never quite dissipated, though I have found outlets for it. I feel that yours is twisting you inside. How could you curse travel and exploration? Why push me away, when I am a part of you?
III: Looking through the plate glass tulips
Tour Baza Energetik, outside Yekaterinburg, 3 July
On the side of a building as you come into the campsite, there is a two-story high mural depicting a young Soviet boy and girl. Their smiles are fixed, and the girl, in a short school uniform dress, holds a bunch of faded flowers in her hand, offering them to some unseen person as lines along the top of the mural exhort the children staying her to study hard and succeed in their future endeavors.
It has been raining constantly for two days. The roof of our two story wooden cabin is leaking, on other people's beds but luckily just on the floor in my room. Black flecks in the the breakfast sausage, grey eggs, and no hot water until July 9th. All the kids from the first session of Pre-Departure Orientation are gone - Alina, the handicapped girl from Perm with her stubs of arms and her brilliant mind, snub-nosed and tanned Olga from Oryol, with her deadly cuteness and two moles under the left eye like spilled chocolate; chubby, good-natured Ilnur, bright Ruslan with his glassed-in eyes. All of them are on a bus back to the city and then back to the towns they came from. Only the four of us: the other American teacher Mark, myself, Lena and Bella, are here between sessions. We make flipcharts, hang out in each others' rooms, and watch Crash on my laptop in the upstairs sitting room, the rain pattering on the windowpanes, the wind coming in through the cracks, covered with a blanket on the couch. It has been an exhausting three days of teaching, and there are three more days coming: another busload of kids comes the next day. I am not sure which part of the orientations I like the best: the teaching itself, or these in-between times of quiet and reflection. The first session ended with a disco, and lots of guitar playing on the staircase, the kids crowded around singing Russian songs and swaying together in the front room, signing each others' "yearbooks" and ours. Their ghosts linger on the staircases, if a ghost is, as I believe it is, the lingering repetition of a powerful event. All of this residual pay-off to my job makes me feel, sometimes, almost guilty. I get more from what I do than most people deserve. I suppose this is what makes you angry with me, E. This idea I have of living with as little compromise as possible. Of course for this I cannot apologise.
The rain, after four solid days of alternating between mist and downpour, shows no sign of letting up. I am starting to wonder if I will ever see the sun before leaving Russia. Outside the window of my room, under a sky like dulled primer coat, an outdoor stage for Young Pioneers ages in the weather, some of the benches in the amphitheater knocked down. What I believe is an international friendship flag hangs limply, soaked, from the pole. Bella has pointed out to me that in the painting of the Pioneer boy and girl, the little girl's skirt is far too short, and it is unclear where the boy's left hand is: he is either urging her forward with her sun-faded flowers or goosing her. As the twilight slowly descends and the rain dies off to a mist that can be shielded against by a light jacket, we walk the circumference of the camp - Lena, Bella, and I, the girls pulling the sleeves of their sweaters over hands made spotty by the cold. There is the wet smell of the Russian forest, the underbrush weighted by water, the bright splashes of wildflowers like alien, violet blood. Finally we are driven back inside by mosquitoes clouding around our heads and tangling in our hair. The next day, new kids arrive. We will spend the next three days teaching them about American culture, American values, and how to survive them. I think of you, E. I reread your letter on my seventh day in Russia, and I think of you.
Days later, at dawn in the Yekaterinburg airport, feeling lonely and looking forward to getting back to my little room in Washington DC for just a few days, I copy the following discovered quote from a magazine:
"I am here far away from home
Even when I die, no one will cry for me;
How lonely it is only to hear
It is from a lullaby in the Kumamoto dialect of Japanese. I should be thinking only of myself, alone in the anonymous prefabricated solitude of a provincial Russian airport. Instead, E, I find myself thinking of you. I think of you in the desert of suburban Phoenix or the desert, really, of suburban wherever. I think of you lying awake at night, because I know that you do. Rereading your letter, I feel it is you who are lost. I feel you have made a wrong turn somewhere.
"Here for the first time I was made aware that a human being is not an entity and that his interpretation of exterior phenomena is meaningless unless it is shared by the other members of his cultural group" - Paul Bowles, introduction, "Their Heads are Green and Their Hands are Blue"
The people around you do not understand you, E. I remember you complaining about this to me at length in an earlier missive. You are right to complain. There is little in you that is also in them. But I want you to know that I do understand. Who else would read your letter so many times, taking it around the world with them and worrying about you? Who else would take so much time to respond to an insult? And so, I will quote your own words back to you:
"Eventually, you have to come home."
My very best,