At some point, your apartment becomes a mere place where you wait for the best time to catch the bus. Or maybe to go to the store; this is the thing about living in one of the new micro-regions on the outskirts of Moscow, there are just a few high rises, a store and a bus stop: you will always run into people. The game then becomes when to leave the house so that you bump into people you like and avoid the reprehensible ones, like that lady with a balding, shivering poodle, all snarls and crooked teeth, way too close in the elevator at 10:30 am. Leave the house at 11.
Or at least this is what I do; I don’t know about you. I wait for the poodle to pass and for the morning rush of the pensioners at the supermarket to ebb; I wait for the students to catch the bus and be gone. After the morning hubbub dies down, I venture outside, cautious like a tortoise, past the war vet who sits on the bench by the building entrance, his dog Chapa wags his tail but stops once the old man says “Calm down” sharply. At the bus stop I smoke, hands in my pockets, cigarette’s filter a squeaking marshmallow between my teeth, and think about where I should go today. The gallery or some museum, yes, Zoology Museum, what with the woolly mammoth and all, when I see Irina—Ira, Irochka, the girl who was my best friend when we were six, a confidante at fourteen, who seemed to have went away abruptly when we were twenty. I assumed she married and moved elsewhere, because how else would she leave the area.
“Zhenya,” she says, as I grin and blow smoke. “You look well.”
“You too.” I take the cigarette out, finally, as its cinder is about to singe my lips. “When did you move back?”
“I never left. I thought you did.”
We share a laugh about our mutual non-acknowledgement for so many years. It happens sometimes, this failure to intersect. Just not with the fucking poodle. Then there isn’t much to say. I want to ask her about gymnastics which she used to do, or what happened with that nunnery she wanted to run away to when we were sixteen and emotional. But nothing comes out and the silence grows as long as the plumes of breath from our nostrils, and the bus has likely been swallowed by the earth, swallowed whole and will never come.
“Say,” Ira-Irochka says, her dark-grey wide-set eyes flicking to my face and then away, “have you heard about Mila Pavlinskaya, except that she is Bondareva now?”
Can’t believe she changed her name. To that, especially. “No. What?”
“She moved back with her parents last week. Her husband went missing a few days before that, so she couldn’t eat—she says she hasn’t eaten since then. She lost ten kilos; she looks great.”
I nod. Irina’s priorities have always been weird. I trust that I’ll probably run into Mila in due course. “Where was she living?”
“Not far.” Ira waves her hand west. “By the train station, on the other side of the tracks. Not like they could afford anything closer to the center.”
The bus comes, and luckily Irina exits two stops later, by the dry cleaners and the sausage factory. I can’t believe she waited twenty minutes instead of walking. I watch a young mother with a little girl, who is pressing her face against the frosted window, her red cheek leaving a half-moon sliver of clear glass.
“Look mama, it’s a circus!” she points.
“No honey, it’s a market,” the mother says. I peek through the clear edge over their heads, and see a donkey and a Bactrian camel. Sometimes Uzbek merchants bring the animals, and then kids get rides or at least pictures next to them.
Zoology Museum is pretty empty, even for a Wednesday in January; usually there are at least school groups or tourists. But not today, so I am free to stand by the mammoth, my head craned up to meet his dusty glass eyes. His coat is rough and rust colored, and if you stare long enough, he starts to move and nod a little bit; I do. I stare at the nodding mammoth until it gets dark outside and it is time for me to go to work—it’s the night shift this week, but the nights start so early and mornings arrive so late, that I hardly see the point in sleeping. If I sleep, the night will swallow everything, so I just grab coffee before walking back to the metro station and making my way to the hospital where I work—not too far, just five metro stops from the museum and one from home. The ride is long enough for me to finish my coffee and feel a little queasy, but it passes.
I keep thinking of Mila Pavlinskaya—she’ll always be Pavlinskaya to me—and wonder how long until we run into each other. It happens next week, when I am back to working days. I’m catching the bus at the metro station on my way from the hospital, and it is dark already and the market has probably wound down for the day and that’s too bad, because I could really use some marinated mushrooms but they have run out. Then again, maybe it’s for the best—the market in winter depresses me, with its frozen vegetables dispensed with wide scoops, and red slabs of trout painted with white frost. I want there to be apricots and strawberries, but that’s not until June. I start counting the weeks but then despair, and wait for the bus, my ears burning cold, and then I see Mila.
She has always been small and rounded, bouncy like a rubber ball, with short black hair and dark rodent eyes. But now she had grown gaunt and drawn, and her cheekbones are smears of light over the dark hollows of her cheeks. The way her coat hangs on her—it’s so big that when she steps toward me, smiling in recognition, it betrays no outline of the body underneath. It floats over her as if she is a ghost, her legs the tongue of this silent woolen bell.
“I heard,” I tell her. “I am sorry.”
She peers up at me, squinting, ice crystals in her lashes catching the pale glow of the street lamps and the yellow of the headlights speeding by, handfuls of slush thrown by wet tires. “Do you think they’ll find him?” She talks as if continuing a conversation, and I realize this is the only conversation she has been having, with everyone around her. “People do come back.”
“Sure,” I say, “some do. Many do.” If it were just a few years earlier, I would assume that the guy was dead somewhere, hands bound with electrical tape and body scorched with a soldering iron because he borrowed money from wrong people. Nowadays, there are simply so many more possibilities. He might even be alive—ran away, maybe, took off for the warmer climes or a nicer wife.
“I think he’s still alive,” she says. “I can feel it.” She picks at the ends of a striped scarf she has clearly knitted herself.
“You should visit sometime,” I tell her. “Come over for tea, if you ever want company.”
“Thank you,” she says. “I will.”
I will myself to not regret my offer, because that would be awful.
I make it to the market on Saturday. Frozen vegetables and a good selection of fish, and—sudden delight!—there is honey, from Uzbekistan. It is old and slow, white with crystalline sugar, but they have buckwheat and linden, wildflower and lavender. An old man (his name is Yusuf, as I find out) lets me try all the varieties, and I take a liter of buckwheat and linden each, heavy in their plastic containers. Yusuf stares at me, like people usually do, but doesn’t say anything.
“Good honey,” I say. “Will you be here all winter?”
He nods. “More people will come from our co-op. In the spring, when there’s fruit.”
“I cannot wait for apricots.”
“In June.” Yusuf smiles. “And fresh honey then too.” I think of the languid, liquid gold and swallow hard. “My daughters tend the hives. My son usually helps me here, but he’s been in the hospital for a while now. Iskander.”
It’s hard to imagine all that sun now, and I look around, at the people bundled up in wool and fur. Older Uzbeks are wearing traditional striped coats, bright against the sun, and, despite the cold, tubeteikas—those tiny embroidered caps don’t really seem to protect from the cold all that well. They always remind me of the pictures of my father in the summer camp—back in the fifties, tubeteika seemed to be a big deal. I wonder where I can buy one today—only the seasonal workers and traders from Central Asia have those now. But the young Uzbeks are wearing regular clothes, with track suits and puffer jackets, and I’m guessing the little hats are about to go extinct.
I wander among the stalls but don’t buy anything except for bread. Butter I have, and honey, now. What else does one need? I even visit the Bactrian camel, who looks superior and wears a blanket embroidered with a blue coop logo. His hair is as rough and tangled as that of a woolly mammoth, and even the color is similar, sandy ochre. I am too repressed to ask for a ride, too burdened with honey—like a bee who takes as much as it can before leaving the hive but is then too heavy to escape. Irony, man.
On the way home, I pass an old man, his legs akimbo, lying in the blueing snowdrifts by the side of the road. His rabbit hat has rolled off, and lies, roundly gaping at the sky, at his side.
“Grandfather,” I call out. Probably a drunk, but who knows, people have had heart attacks and died because everyone assumed they were drunks. “You all right?”
He opens one cloudy eye. “And what the fuck are you?”
I ignore the question, like I normally ignore such questions, and looks, and whispers. “Can I walk you home, grandfather? You’ll freeze here.”
“I’d rather freeze to death,” he slurs, and points an accusing finger at me, never finishing, but still my stomach seizes and I grow very still.
Thankfully, I see two older men coming our way, supporting each other and gesticulating encouragement at their fallen comrade, and I flee then.
The next evening, Mila comes for a visit. We sit in the kitchen, drink tea with buttered bread and honey, and I tell her about the hospital. I try to be sensitive and avoid the painful things, so I talk about an old lady who sits in the hallway, telling everyone who’d listen about how she had veins in her legs removed, and I talk about how much relish some people find in talking about everything that has been done to them—as if they’re dictating it to some invisible stenographer.
“Maybe that’s what God is,” Mila says. “Someone who listens and takes things down when no one else would. Even if it makes no difference and he cannot do anything about it.”
I shrug, politely, and drink my tea. I don’t tell her about the old beggars who freeze to death or the knife wounds, or the young Uzbek who’s been lingering at the death’s doorway for weeks now, and who was brought up with his hands and forearms all slashed up. The Tajiks who work construction being badly beaten.
“When he went missing, we called all the hospitals,” Mila says. “Once before, he was late coming home, and turned out he was just out drinking with friends.” She gives a little laugh. “It’s silly how you get so worried over nothing, and when something big happens…”
I fail to feel any pity for her Bondarev now. “I’m sorry this happened.” I’ve never met the man, but I’m starting to get the picture from everything Mila doesn’t say, for the apologetic way about her I don’t remember being there back when we were friends. She’s so eager to smile and make excuses even when he isn’t here. “He might be still alive, you know. I mean, you think he is.”
Her teacup blooms with concentric circles as she looks down at her tea, drops falling off the tip of her nose as if it’s an icicle. “Then why wouldn’t he call, tell me he’s okay?”
I wish I knew how to comfort her—I wish I knew whether she wanted him alive more than she wanted him to love her. Instead I look at the window panes, frozen over with the intricate patterns of the old Uzbek’s tubeteika—white swirls and flowers against the dark blue of the night outside.
March feels like winter in these parts—the snow is still on the ground, but the signs are there: day by day, it grows porous and sooty, the snowdrifts resembling bulbous, blackhead-ridden noses more each day. It smells like the river, even as far on the outskirts as my house, and the ice will start moving soon. I promise to myself that the next day off I’ll go to the embankment and watch the green carapace spit open as the black sleek river body stirs underneath it.
Back at my apartment building, I know that the spring is coming because the elevator is getting more crowded every day, and old people I haven’t seen since November are suddenly here, emerging from somewhere deep within their apartments, smelling of mothballs. It’s like this every year, and if you live in the same building long enough, these patterns grow into the seasons themselves, waning and changing and ebbing with the tilt of the earth and the slam of the elevator doors. (The larger of the two elevators has a mirror. If there is no one else there with me, I spend the time between the ground and the eighth floors staring at my face in it. The light is yellow and soft and kind, and the mirror is tarnished and cracked in all four corners.)
At the bus stops, there are more students and fewer pensioners. At the bus stop, I see Ira and not Mila; I worry about her, worry that she has melted away like the icicles that drip from the roof of the bus stop. I do not have the heart to stop by her parents’ apartment.
The slush in the roadways dries and the camel at the market (the donkey is gone but the camel and his blue blanket are persisting) is shedding, great clumps of his rough hair blowing about like tumbleweeds. The Uzbeks are bringing spinach now and greenhouse-grown tomatoes and cucumbers, their skins green and spiny like caterpillars.
Yusuf is here. His son, Iskander, has moved back to their home in the valley of Fergana, he tells me. “His hands are still bad,” he says. “The doctor says his tendons were cut so his fingers can’t move well—can’t count the money, can’t give change… he can dig though, and he can help his sisters with the hives.”
“I’m sorry,” I say. I never mention that I’ve seen his son in the hospital, because what would be the point? Everyone runs into everyone else eventually. Cucumber skins are rough against mine, grating. Neither of us says what we are thinking, but I touch the old man’s sleeve, stripes on it fading into one another. “Please be safe.”
He nods and blinks. “We just want to work. Just sell fruit and potatoes. Why…”
There isn’t an answer besides the usual people-are-scared-and-therefore-lash-out, but that stopped being satisfying in the nineties.
Back in the elevator, I overhear an old lady from the sixth floor bragging to her friend from the ninth about the morels she scored at the train station. I rarely go there—to the old ladies lined along the walls of the long underground pass, trains thundering overhead, as they hawk their inferior dill and preserves, but the morels… now, this is spring.
It is the morels that lure me to the train station next morning, but as I approach, I see too many people, even for the morning rush. I wander closer, and realize that the dense wall of people is surrounding an open area—as if no one wants to come closer and is waiting for something brave—to the side of the underground entrance, next to the slope that separates the train tracks from the street below it. Of course there’s snow there—great blackened piles of it, sooty and precarious, and it crumbles away bit by bit, exposing a man’s boot made of Italian leather. Then a black trouser leg, and then I finally see the hand, swollen and purple, palm turned upward, and the open flap of a grey coat.
“Someone call the police!” a woman beside me says.
“We called the police,” a man’s voice from behind us retorts. “Everyone called the police. It’s when they get here that’s the question.”
“Not like it’d make any difference,” another voice says.
True enough, and still I step forward, trying to make out the jumble of melting snow and dirt, cloth, and limbs. I step into the charmed circle around the body, and now the crowd is looking at me, the way people usually do. I read the question in their eyes as soon as I look back, and stammer, “A nurse. I am a nurse.”
“Well, go look then,” the woman in a red knitted beret says.
“Yeah, that’s a nurse he needs, not a mortician,” a young guy snickers, but the woman is not in the mood and gives him a heavy, judging look. “Well go help then if you’re so clever,” she says, and he falls silent, and so does everyone else.
I step to the body, careful not to disturb the crime scene too much—not like there are footprints or anything but the dead man, his face barely visible through the thin cellophane of frozen snow, but I can tell that his hair is black and he is young, and I see a lumpy striped hand-knitted scarf, and hope that Mila isn’t in the crowd behind me. How many weeks has he been under the snow?
I know how it is in these micro-regions, only a matter of time until you meet everyone; it just takes a little longer if they live on the other side of the train tracks. I kneel by his side, and I see a knife, ivory handle and curved blade, resting just next to his right hand. I see the wooden handle of a hammer and realize that the claw of it is stuck somewhere under the man’s ribs, and that the black of his shirt is actually blood. The police sirens are howling and I can hear them from the corners of my mind, as it comes to me: a late night confrontation, a young man with hands cut up with a curvy blade. Of course the Uzbek had a hammer on him—they use those to open wooden crates with the produce. And then there is a flash of midnight blue.
“Step aside, step aside!” the policeman calls from behind me. I press my hands into the snow, as if to push myself up, and hope that the cops won’t see me pocketing a tatter of embroidered fabric. I hope Iskander is safe in Fergana, I hope his hands heal from his wounds.
I walk away with a piece of evidence in my pocket, and hope that even an unsolved crime would be enough closure for Mila. Because really, who wants to know such things about people we used to love.