Authors: Lara Prescott
I was taken to the Lubyanka hospital and as the doctor told me what I already knew, all I could think of was how my clothes still smelled like the morgue, like death.
“The witnesses’ statements have enabled us to uncover your actions: You have continued to denigrate our regime and the Soviet Union. You have listened to Voice of America. You have slandered Soviet writers with patriotic views and have praised to the skies the work of Pasternak, a writer with antiestablishment opinions.”
I listened to the judge’s verdict. I heard his words, and the number he gave. But I didn’t put the two together until I was taken back to my cell. Someone asked, and I answered: “Five years.” And it was only then that it hit me: five years in a reeducation camp in Potma. Five years, six hundred kilometers from Moscow. My daughter and son would be teenagers. My mother would be nearly seventy. Would she still be alive? Boris would have moved on—maybe having found a new muse, a new Lara. Maybe he already had.
The day after my sentencing, they gave me a moth-eaten winter coat and loaded me into the back of a canvas-topped truck filled with other women. We watched Moscow stream by through an opening in the back.
At one point, a group of schoolchildren crossed behind the truck, two by two. Their teacher called out for them to keep their eyes straight ahead, but a little boy turned and we made eye contact. For a moment, I imagined he was my own son, my Mitya, or maybe the baby I’d never known.
When the truck stopped, the guards yelled for us to get out and move quickly to the train that would take us to the Gulag. I thought of the early pages of Borya’s novel, of Yuri Zhivago boarding a train with his young family, seeking safety in the Urals.
The guards sat us on benches in a car without windows, and as the train rolled out, I closed my eyes.
Moscow radiates out in circles, like a pebble dropped into still water. The city expands from its red center to its boulevards and monuments to apartment buildings—each one taller and wider than the next. Then come the trees, then the countryside, then snow, then snow.
It was one of those humid days in the District, the air thick over the Potomac. Even in September, it still felt like breathing through a wet rag. As soon as I stepped out of the basement apartment I shared with my mother, I regretted wearing my gray skirt. With each step, all I could think was
wool, wool, wool.
By the time I boarded the number eight and took a seat in back, I could feel the sweat soaking through my white blouse. Worse yet, I felt as if there were two large sweat stains, one per cheek, on my behind. With our landlord threatening to raise our rent, I badly needed this job. Why hadn’t I worn linen?
After a bus transfer and another three blocks of chafing, I arrived at Foggy Bottom. Walking down E, I discreetly attempted to check my rear in a Peoples Drug window. But I couldn’t make anything out, on account of the sun’s glare and the fact that I wasn’t wearing my glasses.
I was twenty when I first saw an optometrist, but by that time, I was so used to life’s dulled edges, when I finally saw the world as it really is, everything was far too vivid. I could see every leaf on a tree and each pore on my nose. I could see each strand of white cat fur on every article of clothing, thanks to my upstairs neighbor’s cat, Miska. It all gave me a headache. I found myself preferring things as one fuzzy whole, not broken down by their clear parts, and so rarely wore my glasses. Or maybe I was just stubborn—I had an idea about how the world was, and anything contrary made me uneasy.
Passing a man on a bench, I could feel his eyes lingering. Was he looking at the way I slouched my shoulders and focused on the ground as I walked? I’d practiced correcting my posture by walking around my bedroom for hours with books on my head, but all the practice hadn’t fixed it. Whenever I felt a man’s gaze, I assumed he was looking at my awkward gait. The other possibility, that he might’ve found me attractive, never crossed my mind. It was always how I walked, or the homemade clothes I wore, or whether I accidentally stared too long at someone, as I’m prone to do. It was never that I was pretty. No, never that.
I picked up my pace, ducked into a diner, and went straight to the restroom.
No sweat stains, thank God. Everything else was another matter: my bangs were plastered to my forehead, the mascara my mother had told me looked like something a mail-order bride would wear had run, and the powder I’d delicately applied to what the Woolworth’s saleswoman called my “problem areas” was thick as Bisquick. I splashed my face with water and was about to towel it off when someone knocked on the door.
“Just a minute.”
The knocking continued.
The person on the other side jiggled the knob.
Cracking the door open, I stuck my dripping face out. “Be right out,” I told the man with a newspaper tucked under his arm, and slammed the door. Hiking up my skirt, I wedged a folded-up paper towel between my underwear and girdle and checked my watch: twenty-five minutes until my interview.
Sidney, my ex-boyfriend, if you could call him that, had first told me about the job opening one night over pizza and beers at the Bayou. He was one of those D.C. guys who pride themselves on being in the know, and he knew I’d been trying to land a government gig since graduating two years earlier. But entry-level positions had become scarce and you usually had to know someone who knew someone to get an in. Sidney was my in. He had a job at the State Department and heard about the open typist position from a friend of a friend. I knew it’d be a long shot, as my typing and shorthand skills were just okay and my only other work experience had been answering phones for an almost-retired litigator who wore ill-fitting suits. But Sidney said I was a shoo-in because he’d put in a word with someone he knew at the Agency. I suspected he didn’t really know anyone at the Agency with whom to put in a word, but I thanked him anyway. When Sidney leaned in for a kiss, I extended my hand and thanked him again.
I left the bathroom, relieved to see that the man with the newspaper was gone. I ordered a large Coca-Cola, and the little Greek man behind the counter gave it to me with a wink. “Rough start?” he asked. Nodding, I guzzled down the soda. “Thanks,” I said, sliding a nickel across the counter. He pushed it back with one finger. “My treat,” he said, and winked again.
I arrived fifteen minutes early at the black iron gates leading into the complex of large gray and red brick buildings on Navy Hill. Five minutes would’ve been respectable, but fifteen minutes early meant I had to walk around the block three times before entering. By then, I was a sweaty mess all over again. As I pushed the heavy door, I expected to be greeted with a blast of delicious air conditioning, but was hit only with more hot air.
After waiting in the inspection line, it was my turn to have my ID checked against the list of preapproved visitors. But as I went to get it, a white-haired man in round wire-rimmed glasses pushed past me, knocking into me and causing me to drop my handbag. My meager one-page résumé fell to the floor. The man who’d breezed past security turned and came back. He picked it up, handing me my now smudged and slightly embellished yet still meager list of accomplishments and qualifications with a “Here you go, miss.” Then he was off before I could respond.
In the elevator, I licked my fingertip and scratched at the smudge on my résumé. It only made it worse, and I cursed myself for not bringing an extra copy. I’d written it with the help of a book I checked out from the library titled
How to Land the Job Fair and Square!
I formatted the résumé per the book’s instructions, even paying extra for the heavier off-white paper stock. The smudged résumé was what the book would call “amateur hour.”
To make matters worse, in the process of picking it up, I’d caused the paper towel I’d inserted in the bathroom to ride up, and I could feel it pressing against the small of my back. I told myself not to think of it, which made me think of it even more.
“Where you headed?” the woman next to me asked, her finger hovering over the buttons.
“Oh,” I said. “Three. No, four.”
I held up the smudged résumé.
“How’d you know?”
“I’m pretty good at making quick assessments.” The woman extended her hand. She had wide-set eyes and full lips with waxy red lipstick that resembled two Swedish Fish. “Lonnie Reynolds,” she said. “Been at the Agency since before it was the Agency.” She seemed simultaneously proud and tired of that fact. When she shook my hand, I noticed a band of white skin on her ring finger. She noticed me notice the missing ring and held my gaze for an uncomfortable moment. The elevator dinged at the third floor.
“Any advice?” I asked as she stepped out.
“Type fast. Don’t ask questions. And don’t take any shit.” As two men got into the elevator, I heard her call out from behind them, “And that was Dulles who ran into you, by the way.”
Before I could ask who that was, the doors closed.
On the fourth floor, the receptionist greeted me by pointing to the row of plastic chairs lining the wall where two women were already seated. I took a seat and felt the paper towel shift. I cursed myself for not coming up earlier when I’d had the chance.
To my right was an older woman wearing a heavy green cardigan that looked about two decades old and a long brown corduroy skirt. She was dressed more like a schoolmarm than a shorthand typist, or what I’d envisioned a shorthand typist to look like, and I scolded myself for being so judgmental. She held her résumé on her lap, pinched between her index fingers and thumbs. Was she as nervous as I was? Was she coming back to work after her kids had left the nest? Had she started a new career, taking business classes at night, wanting to do something new? She looked at me and whispered “Good luck.” I smiled and told myself to knock it off.
I checked the time on the wall clock as an excuse to check out the petite brunette seated to my left. She seemed just out of secretarial school—twenty, maybe, but she didn’t look a day over sixteen. Prettier than me, she wore a coat of glossy pink nail polish the color of ballet slippers. She had one of those hairstyles that looked as if it had taken a lot of time and bobby pins to achieve. And she wore an outfit that looked new: a long-sleeved dress with a white collar and hound’s-tooth heels. It was the kind of dress I would’ve seen in a department store window and wished I could buy instead of having to go home and draw it on a piece of paper so my mother could make me a knockoff. My own blasted wool skirt was a copy of a lovely gray one I’d seen on a mannequin in a Garfinckel’s widow display a year earlier.
I complained far too often that my clothes weren’t store-bought or even in fashion, but after the litigator had fully retired and let me go, Mama’s seamstress business was the only thing paying the rent for our basement apartment. She worked out of the dining room on an old Ping-Pong table we’d found on the curb. We removed the broken net and she positioned her pride and joy—a foot-pedal Vesta that was a gift from my father, and one of the only items she’d taken with her on the journey from Moscow—on the large green table. In Moscow, Mama had worked at a Bolshevichka factory, but she always had a black-market side business creating custom dresses and wedding gowns. She was a bulldog of a woman—in looks and temperament. She’d come to America during the last of the second wave of Russian immigrants to leave the Motherland. The borders were on the brink of closing, and if my parents had waited even a few more months, I’d have grown up behind the Iron Curtain instead of in the Land of the Free.
When they’d packed up their tiny room, in a collective apartment shared with four families, Mama had been three months pregnant with me and hoped to reach American shores in time for my birth. In fact, Mama’s pregnancy was what motivated my parents to leave. As her belly swelled, my father had secured the necessary papers and a place to live temporarily—with second cousins who’d made a life for themselves in a place called Pikesville, Maryland. It sounded so exotic to Mama at the time, and she’d whisper it to herself like a prayer: “Maryland,” she’d say. “Maryland.”
At the time, my father had worked in an armaments factory, but before that, he’d attended the Institute of the Red Professors, where he studied philosophy. In his third year, he was dismissed for expressing
ideas which fell outside the designated curriculum.
The plan was for my father to seek work at one of the many universities in Baltimore or Washington, save up by living with our cousins for a year or two, then buy a house, a car, have another baby—the whole thing. My parents dreamed about the baby they’d have. They’d visualized its entire life: birth in a clean American hospital, learning its first words in both Russian and English, attending the best schools, learning to drive a big American car on a big American highway, maybe even playing baseball. In their dream, they’d sit up in the stands and eat peanuts and cheer. And in their future home, Mama would have a room of her own to make her dresses, and maybe even start her own business.
They said goodbye to their parents and siblings and everyone and everything they’d ever known. They knew that once they left, they’d never be able to return, their citizenship stripped permanently for the pursuit of the American dream.
I was born at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and my first word was a Russian
followed by an English
I did attend an excellent public school and even played softball and learned to drive in my cousin’s Crosley. But my father never saw any of it. It took years for Mama to tell me why I never met him, and when she did, she blurted it out in one rapid speech, as if she had something to confess. As she told it, they’d gotten in line to board the steamship that would take them across the Atlantic when two uniformed men approached and demanded that my father show them his papers. They’d already gone through this process with the other uniformed men, so Mama hadn’t immediately sensed the danger that Papa had when he pulled the papers out of his jacket. Without even looking at the travel documents, the men had taken hold of my father’s arms, saying their superior needed to have a look—in private. Mama grabbed hold of Papa, but the men yanked him away. She screamed and Papa calmly told Mama to board the ship—that he’d be along shortly. When she protested, he said again, “Board the ship.”
As the steamer whistled that it was about to leave, Mama didn’t run to the railing to see if my father was running up the ramp at the last minute; she already knew she’d never see her husband again. Instead, she collapsed on the cot reserved for her in the third-class bunk. The cot next to hers would remain empty for the remainder of the journey, my steady kicks inside her belly her only companionship.
Years later, when we received a telegram from Mama’s sister in Moscow saying that Papa had died in the Gulag, Mama spent exactly one week in bed. I was only eight at the time, but I carried on with the cooking and cleaning, getting myself to and from school, and finishing Mama’s small sewing jobs—repairing torn sleeves and hemming pants and then delivering the finished items.
Her first job in America had been at Lou’s Cleaners & Alterations, where she pressed and ironed men’s shirts all day, coming home each night with her hands stained and cracked from the harsh chemicals. Only occasionally did she have the meager opportunity to take out her needle and hem a pair of pants or repair a jacket button. But a week after hearing about my father’s death, Mama got out of bed, put on a full face of makeup, quit her job at Lou’s, and went to work. Stitch after stitch, bead after bead, feather after feather, she applied the full extent of her grief to making dresses. She barely left the house for two months, and when she was done, she’d filled two trunks with gowns more beautiful than anything she’d ever produced. She persuaded the priest at Holy Cross Russian Orthodox Church to allow her to set up a small table at their annual fall festival. She sold every dress within hours, even the showpiece—a bridal gown that a woman bought for her eleven-year-old daughter to wear sometime in the future. When she was finished, we had enough money to move out of our cousins’ crowded house in Maryland, to put first and last months’ rent down on an apartment in D.C., and for Mama to get her dress business off the ground. She’d have her American dream, even if she had to do it by herself.