An incident becomes a narrative becomes a drama, and grows a happy ending. Which is the real story, after all its parts have played out, changing us?
It’s summer 1984. I’m sixteen. My friend Artem and I are at a discotheque in Repino, a suburban town on the Gulf of Finland and a summer dacha destination for many Leningrad families. Quiet streets, one- or two-story buildings. Darkness is settling. The discotheque is held at a dom otdyha (a Soviet blend of sanatorium and health resort).
Several middle-aged people mill about, their faces void of passion or curiosity. The hall is nondescript, a beige room with sound—a mélange of 1980s Italian pop, state-sanctioned Soviet music, and the occasional something in English, all pulsing with tasteless energy. Too embarrassed to relax and really dance, Artem and I occupy ourselves with minor dancelike moves.
Then everything changes. A skinny, attractive girl our age enters. Her mischievous face shines with a confident and humorous light, her blond hair flows down her shoulders. Her close-fitting jeans look rare and imported over a cool pair of sneakers; her tunic is down to just above her knees.
The stranger briefly examines the scene. I’m shocked to see her head over to the spot where Artem and I perform our awkward swaying. That smile—surely it’s not addressed to us; she must know someone else here. I turn around—no one in that direction. She approaches.
The music is extraordinarily loud. The three of us nod to one another and keep dancing. The newcomer is the only graceful person in the room, her sense of rhythm evident in every move. A happy grin illumines her face as she dances.
In a pause between songs, we exchange names.
Short form of Lubov, the Russian word for love—a common name a generation or two ago, now falling out of use.
Is Luba flirting with us? She makes more eye contact with me. I’m just a teenager—possibly slightly cute, in transition from a child to an adult, not nearly as good-looking as when I was a child. My clothes are baggy and uninteresting. What might others see in me?
What should I do? I focus on the music, trying not to overthink this. As the dancing continues and we become part of it, smiles on our faces find each other. I hope my hands and my voice don’t shake when the music is over and we have a conversation. I hope we do have one. She might just walk away.
It’s an hour-long event: Soviet citizens are not supposed to have too much fun. The disco lights dim. We are an awkward trio as we stroll down a chilly Repino street. There are no cars.
“What are you two doing here?” Luba’s brows rise, comically. “I didn’t think I’d meet anyone below my parents’ age.”
I believe her. I’m aware of the kind of people that tend to go to resorts: communists with some claim to being important on the Soviet scale. Random walk-ins like us must have been her own hope.
“I could be your father,” I say, and we crack up. I’m too sincere to withhold the actual answer. “We live in Leningrad—here for the summer. And you?”
“I’m on vacation here, for another week. I’m staying at the resort.” Luba points back at the building.
“Where’re you from?”
“Moscow. My aunt lives in Leningrad. I love the city—all the literature. Dostoevsky, Pushkin. You two are lucky to live there.”
“How’s the resort?” No one in my family has ever gone to resorts—my parents reference them as a luxury available only through special connections. How Luba got here is a question for another time.
“There’s no one to talk to.” Luba shrugs. “I tried, but everyone stares at me like I’m from another world, or just speaks in banalities. No one has read any books.”
“What do you do all day?” Artem asks.
“I brought Anna Karenina.” Luba grins. “I read in my room. I read in the garden. I go to the beach and read some more. I sleep. I write. I have my meals at the cafeteria. To be honest, I can’t wait till this vacation is over.”
“I’m not sure about Tolstoy.” I try to sound mild about it, even if the famous author’s self-indulgent homegrown philosophies annoy me as much as his exuberant page counts. “We can argue about it later. What do you write?”
“Notes. Poems. I’m starting my first year in college.”
“What will you study?”
She must be about a year older—this makes our encounter even more intriguing.
“I write poetry and fiction.” With books in the picture, my embarrassment has lifted. “I’m just starting.”
Luba is smart, interesting, full of shared references; one theme easily leads to another. A beautiful girl is a beautiful girl, but quality conversation is a must. The dark street with its yellow lights is helpful and optimistic. The occasional pedestrians are in no rush.
“I have to go back in.” Luba stops. “Otherwise they’ll gossip about me.”
It’s past nine. In this Soviet reality, I believe her.
“Let’s do this again tomorrow,” she adds.
I hesitate. What kind of joy, happiness, or distress will this new acquaintance bring into my life? Living in different cities is not a great foundation to build on, at this age. Long-distance relationships are not exactly in fashion in the USSR. Artem seems equally uncertain.
But I’ve met few girls as fascinating as Luba seems to be.
“Come on, come on—what do you have to lose?” she eggs us on. “Don’t let me die from boredom.”
“Sure, why not,” I say.
Will I regret it?
The next day it’s just Luba and I. I won’t remember the clever and somewhat questionable maneuver that yields this result. Maybe there is no maneuver. Maybe Artem simply cancels of his own accord.
When I spot Luba’s mischievous smile, I feel a surge of energy and good cheer. The dance party is not for another hour. We walk about Repino.
“I’ve been thinking about you,” I say.
“Of course. Not much else to think about, here.”
We laugh, but I read some interest in her humor, in the very fact that she came out to meet me.
We dance, smiling at each other like co-conspirators, pounding fast rhythms into the floor. I feel more at ease with the rhythm. Then, a slow dance intoxicates me as I hold this stranger in my arms, her breasts against my chest as we sway to the predictable, yet momentarily sweet, pop music. Her hair smells sweet, a mix of sweat and an unfamiliar shampoo, an option rare in this country where most of us use soap to wash our hair. Her arms around my neck are strong, elegant like a gift, like a noose. In this dancing embrace, I’m about to melt.
Luba’s vacation is coming to an end. My heart is cracked open the way it’s never been before. We’ve spent a good part of this week together, sad that our access to each other is constrained by distance. As we head down a wooded path leading to the Gulf, tension and magic are palpable. My hand on the small of her back—she turns to me; we kiss. How quickly can I fall in love?
Most moderately-educated Russians like us have read many thick volumes of romantic prose and poetry and feel sentimental about accidental meetings and vast distances. Chekhov and his little dog are breathing down our necks.
“Will we see each other again?”
“Sure.” Luba’s lips are soft as they touch mine. “I’ll be back in Leningrad in September. I can stay at my aunt’s. I’ll miss you so much.”
“I’ll miss you too.”
How likely is this, to meet someone from elsewhere, instead of a girl from my own city of millions? It’s clear we’ve made a dent in each other. We begin writing. Fortunately, mail is the one thing in the USSR that works; for some reason I don’t quite understand, it’s delivered twice a day, except for Sunday.
September arrives. I’m in my last year of high school. The girls in my class are nowhere near as interesting as Luba. With all the schoolwork and writing and socializing among my small group of friends, I don’t meet many new people.
Luba visits every month or two, as promised. We see each other for a few hours at a time. We wander Leningrad streets, beautiful baroque buildings all around us. We talk, we kiss. Although the Soviet Union is not puritanical about sex, it’s not common here to be sexually active at sixteen. Besides, we don’t have a good place to develop a deeper intimacy, nor does it seem as though the time allotted us allows this development. Our brief meetings are filled with longing, every emotion enhanced by brevity. The gigantic train station looms over us, the two of us running, her train always leaving in two minutes.
It’s a little too convenient for me that Luba must always be the one to make the effort. I feel bad about it, yet unprepared to reciprocate. I’m not sure where we’re going with this. We spend enough time together to keep me hooked, but not enough to feel properly in love. The intervals between our meetings subdue the intensity and make room for minor crushes on other girls in my vicinity. I miss Luba, but not desperately. I think about her, but not all the time.
Over the next year or two, I notice that some details in Luba’s account of her place of residence don’t connect. She never lets me take her to the train itself; we always say goodbye inside the station. Eventually, it comes out that Luba is not from Moscow—she lives in Vologda, a small medieval city. It’s new to me that someone could change the details of her life, substitute fiction for facts. Why? To avoid appearing provincial to snobbish Leningraders? But I don’t care where someone is from.
I’m on shaky territory, in a world with unclear rules—but the deviations are minor, and I’m drawn to this bright person who’s done so much to keep me in her life. I assume she wouldn’t lie about significant things.
As I write this down in 2018, I don’t remember the conversation about Moscow vs. Vologda. Was there a confrontation? Things one expects to remember are forgotten. Does it mean they weren’t important?
I remember Luba’s striped shirts and sweaters of those years, white and blue. I remember her small feet.
In June 1986, I’m eighteen. Promptly, I’m drafted into the Soviet Military. For two desperate years, Luba is one of my correspondents as I go through stages of personality removal, trying to make sure there is enough left to rebuild.
I visit her in the summer of 1988. The train stops at Vologda’s ornate station, a baroque two-story building quite unlike Leningrad’s. Two platforms in Vologda are quite a contrast to the vast spread of tracks in Leningrad. A few people disembark; many will travel farther, into lands I will never visit. Luba is doing an internship at the Spaso-Prilutsky Monastery outside Vologda; she is working on a double major, in journalism and history. I take a bus and meet her there. She is even more full of spark than I remember, something in her appearance refined or solidified. A tan adds to the effect.
We exchange an awkward hug, a too-brief kiss. I’m not sure if we meet as a potential romantic couple or as friends. The monastery is not operational—the Soviet regime has exterminated not only free thought, but most competing dogmas. The place is open to visitors as a museum. Built from white stone, it looks bland as I enter.
We kiss more as we explore the second-floor gallery in the monastery wall, the structure’s most interesting feature. I notice how well Luba’s body fits with mine—something I remember from two and a half years ago. Her head rests easily on my chest. I can almost wrap my hands around her waist.
The monastery wall is massive; the first floor below us utilized for workshops and storage. The concave ceiling narrows the gallery. Elongated arches form unpaned windows on either side. Curved shadows on the floor and the walls, stark against the all-white background, obey the incoming light’s irregular configurations.
To one side of the monastery grounds, the Vologda river drags along the reflections of isolated clouds. A well-proportioned white cathedral rises in the middle, a touch of gray contributed by time. Everything is in some degree of disrepair, except for Luba, a well-proportioned individual full of plans, books, opinions—engaged in life, which deserves a full engagement. So few people I know have that spark, that commitment to emotional and intellectual intensity.
“This place was founded in 1371. Imagine that.” Her blue eyes are bright with excitement. “In the 1930s, it was a Gulag transport prison for political prisoners. Not something you can read about, but if you ask around, people tell you. Later, it was used for storage. And now . . .” She looks around, as if uncertain how to evaluate the current state of affairs in an ancient monastery, now a poorly attended museum.
“I’m going to marry you,” I declare. Saying this feels right just now, even if I’m not nearly as confident as this statement might suggest.
“No way!” Luba cracks up. “I’m seeing someone, as you know.”
She did mention this in a letter. I can’t be too upset after thirty months apart, but the fact does contribute to the moment’s ambiguity. Why is she making out with me?
I’m not going to protest.
As shadows migrate toward the closing hour, we head to the exit. I pull on the massive wooden door, a long diagonal crack in it sealed with glue in a darker brown.
The door is locked.
“Shit.” I check my watch. “It’s not five yet.”
“I bet the monk who locked up knew we were here,” Luba laughs. “He was checking us out. He must have heard us laughing upstairs.”
“Doesn’t he know you from before?”
“We’ve said hello once or twice. He’s stern. I don’t think he approves of me.”
I’m surprised there is still a monk in this monastery which no longer functions as one. Perhaps he was kept around for groundskeeping.
“Is he really a monk?” I ask.
“I think so.” Luba grins.
“Great opportunity to check my karate skills.” I point at the door.
We laugh, unafraid. I’m intoxicated by the ease of our connection. I slam my foot into the door, but my foot is the only item affected. I wince, try again. The heavy door was built in centuries when solid work was appreciated and well repaired. In any case, my karate skills barely approach one on a one to ten scale.
“Coming, coming,” a voice yells. The monk grudgingly unlocks the door. A long black robe validates his claim to this role.
The rest of my visit passes with no big decisions, no broken doors. It’s too late for us, or too early. Our shared hours in life are insufficient to commit to anything. We’ve known each other for four years but can’t claim more than four days’ worth of shared time. Not enough emotional content exists between us—as if we are destined to drift near each other, but not together.
Next summer, Luba visits me in Leningrad. I’m twenty-one; she’s twenty-two. I pick her up at the station, as the tradition goes. The reliable rails, ready to carry us across time.
We haven’t had sex, haven’t tried a full-size relationship. This announcement drops with the weight of all the lead in the world. What am I doing in Luba’s life? Why is she in mine? Why is she here? Perhaps we value each other more than the circumstances of our lives have allowed us to show, to take advantage of? We’ve never said I love you to each other.
I’ve never thought any of this through all the way.
“Who’s the father?”
“An old friend. I should’ve left it at that. We met in preschool, age two. He wants to marry me, always has.” Hesitation in her voice.
My chest tightens. I’m sad because now I’ll lose Luba for sure, happy because this logistically and emotionally difficult long-distance relationship will be behind me. Is she here to ask for my blessing?
How can I give one?
I’m in Vologda again in late summer, the day before Luba’s wedding. I’ve grown fond of this small city on the river, with its elegant old churches and its empty streets compared to the bustling Leningrad. We meet at Luba’s small apartment. She is crying, defeat on her face.
“I don’t want to marry him. I don’t want to do it.”
What’s my role in this? Do I convince her not to marry? Is it my right? I’m a college student. Unlike Luba, I don’t have a place of my own—I share one with my family. I have little to offer. I’m studying to be a scientist but am compelled to be a writer. We live in a country where neither pursuit amounts to a good plan. And even if I had a solid plan, a reliable future, I’m not confident I’d be safe with this sometimes-unpredictable person.
“Why are you marrying him if you don’t want to?”
“We’re having a baby. I told him I didn’t want to go through with this. He got so angry. I was scared.” Luba pauses. “I begged him not to do anything crazy.”
I’m worried about her. Why did she get involved with this potentially dangerous man? Is he really the way she describes him? The day passes, sadness hovering over us. No answers arrive in time for my return train. I’m preparing to move past this relationship. I’m tired of all the drama; I feel a dull edge of nothing.
In July 1990, my friend Sergey and I receive our US visas. No matter what happens next, I can’t stay in the USSR. This decision emerged all at once back in May. Now is my chance to change my life, or at least to try. If I stay, I may never be able to leave.
Luba must have given birth five or six months ago; I’m in a brief relationship of my own. Still, as I begin to organize my life for departure, I have no doubt: she is one of the people to whom I owe the news. I write.
A few days later, I get a phone call.
“Tolechka, I can’t believe it. When are you leaving?”
“My US visa expires next January. I’m trying to get my hands on a plane ticket.”
“I must see you before you go. I’ll come.”
“You’ll come? To Leningrad?”
“Yes, of course.”
I’m reminded: she picked me first. She’s the one who’s traveled so many more times to see me.
When Luba arrives in early August 1990, we’re stuck to each other like crazy magnets. At twenty-two, I haven’t developed the morals to be concerned that Luba is a newly married woman with a small baby, currently watched over by her husband. Besides, I have a prior claim on her. We’ve been through a lot, even if so much of it has happened at a distance.
We head to my apartment. At this age, I’m no longer concerned about my parents and Babushka’s witnessing our intimacy. I make introductions; we have tea. Soon, we are in my room, our clothes rendered obsolete. We stay there for hours, finding each other’s bodies for the first time. The day and the night pass through us as concentrated time, wringing us up.
You dropped me off at the airport, Luba writes in a few days. I remember wishing the plane would crash. I love you. I don’t know what to do.
Do I love Luba? I think so. I don’t have a reference point, but I think about her enough to assume so. Want to come to America with me? I write back. A crazy idea—but emigration is no trifle in any case. Wouldn’t a companion be marvelous?
My invitation is lightweight. So much in Luba’s life makes this impossible. Clearly, she will say no.
Yes, she writes in her reply. Of course, I’ll come with you.
I can’t believe this. I find myself grinning as I reread.
We begin to plan. Luba needs to get a divorce, convince her husband to surrender his parental rights, and prepare to travel to the United States with a baby not quite a year old. No problem—people do this every day. At this point in my life, everything is possible.
When I visit Vologda in September 1990, the husband is on a business trip, and it’s the three of us in the small Soviet-style one-bedroom apartment on the second floor: Luba, the charming Sonya in her seven-month-old glory, and I. Our clothes fly off.
As the evening settles outside, we are starving. Luba cooks some fried hot dogs and potatoes; I volunteer to do the dishes. Luba mixes a new bottle of formula. Sonya, who was beginning to fuss, is quickly satisfied. Luba changes a cloth diaper, carefully disposing of the contents in the bathroom and stowing the soiled cloth in a smelly plastic bag.
The baby taken care of, we enjoy each other’s company again. It’s liberating, to finally be together after hovering around each other for all these years.
Then it’s the next afternoon. I get ready to pack and head to the train station. We are adrift in this parting moment.
Outside, a car door slams shut.
“Fuck.” Luba freezes.
“He’s back. He wasn’t due back until tonight.”
“What do we do?”
Luba thinks. “Stay here.”
It’s not the time to argue. I remain in the apartment, nervously checking my backpack and my ticket and examining the place for anything embarrassing—as if the situation didn’t speak for itself. I prepare for a physical confrontation if one should occur.
Five or ten minutes later, Luba returns, pale and out of breath.
“He’s gone. He and I will talk tonight.”
“That’s okay. I had to tell him anyway. Now there’s no going back.”
I’m glad. I’m not a fan of secrets.
After my parents’ separation a few months ago, it’s Mom and Babushka who share the Leningrad apartment with me. Each of us has the luxury of a separate room, fairly uncommon in the USSR.
“Luba is coming to America with me,” I open as we sit down to dinner.
“Really?” My mom doesn’t look too happy about it. She must be still worried about Luba after the Moscow/Vologda debacle.
“Yes. It’s going to be less lonely.”
“I guess so,” she concurs. “But what about the baby?”
“She’ll have to come with us, of course.”
“Really?” I can tell she doesn’t know where to begin her follow-up questions.
“We’ve decided she and Sonya should move here for now.”
“Here?” Mom lets go of her tablespoon; with a loud click, it rests in her soup bowl. Babushka watches, her face neutral.
“Sure. Just temporarily, of course.”
“But she doesn’t have the visa, anything. Besides, what are we going to do with the baby? I don’t have time for her.”
“That’s okay. Luba and I will take care of her. You don’t have to do anything.”
By my mother’s grim face, I can tell she’s not particularly happy about this. But it’s the Soviet Union, a place where an alternative solution, like renting a small apartment, is quite simply unavailable. I know I’m leaving Mom with no choice.
“I can watch Sonya sometimes.” Babushka is always kind; perhaps she has the time and the mental space to offer her help.
“Wait!” Mom’s voice is still tense, higher than usual, as it tends to be when something difficult and potentially unpleasant needs to be settled. “And after you leave for the United States?”
“They might have to stay here. We’ll have to see, but it might be safer for Luba here, away from her husband.”
I’ve already shared the background of this complicated story.
“That’s a crazy idea, Tolka.” My mother smiles a little now, which tells me that we won’t have a bigger argument with yelling involved. “Are you sure you know what you’re getting yourself into?”
“Not exactly, but sometimes we have to take risks.”
“If you say so.”
I’m consumed by a what the hell attitude. So much is changing in my life. Why be afraid of additional changes?
Luba quits her journalist job in Vologda, a rare and much sought-after position she’s held since her graduation a year ago. She won’t have enough time to get a new job in Leningrad.
Caring for a baby is new to me. It’s harder than my newly abandoned major, mathematical physics. My life as I know it is being dismantled; in its place, I’ll create whatever I want—or at least whatever I manage to pull off.
The last three months of 1990 are tense and emotional because of our overcrowded life and the upcoming changes. We take walks with Sonya in the stroller, talk, read poetry to each other. My friends love Luba’s vibe; her integration into my small circle is quick and natural. On many evenings, four or five of us gather in our small kitchen, deep in conversation.
Do you realize that this—all this—being here, in Leningrad, with you, won’t remain in our lives much longer?” Luba whispers, her head on the pillow next to mine.
“I know. We’ll remember this.” I close my eyes, the couch bed I’ve slept on for over a decade firm and reliable under me. The two of us get to share it briefly this fall. What other beds will we find ourselves in?
Have you discussed divorce with your husband yet?”
“Not yet. He’ll be in Leningrad next week. I should talk to him in person.”
I’m happy but insecure. Not only am I committing to a more substantial relationship than ever in my life, and a baby to boot—but I fear Luba might change her mind. I wasn’t extremely invested in her coming along when the notion first struck me, but after these few months of an intense relationship, we’ve become much closer. As young Russian romantics, we refer to each other as husband and wife—even if this is not technically accurate.
Luba can be casual about time.
“I’ll be back at seven.” She entrusts me with Sonya’s care.
It’s 7:00, 7:30, 8:00. I’m interchangeably irritated and worried, imagining any number of misfortunes that may have befallen her in this gigantic city, after dark, which, in winter, descends in the early afternoon. Luba arrives around 8:30.
“I lost track of time.” She is happy and casual as I stare, dumbfounded.
“How is that possible? You have a watch on your wrist.”
“I was just wandering around the city center. I’m sorry.”
“I was worried. I had to cancel my plans.”
We’re both rather spoiled in our early twenties. Most of our problems have been solved by our parents—and, in Luba’s case of late, by her husband.
In November, I finally procure an airplane ticket for New York. I’m set to depart on December 20th, 1990.
So, this is it, then? Am I really doing this? Do I have the guts? When I get there, will I commit to staying? Will leaving my language and my culture ever pay off?
Our free time is running out. Luba might not be able to get a US visa, a divorce, a plane ticket. We live with uncertainty, the possibility of ruined plans and hopes. No matter how much I try to arrange my life’s components, Luba is a separate person. I trust her plan to join me in the States. Optimism and improvisation become key components in our lives.
December 20th at the airport, Luba’s eyes are red, our last kiss desperate.
The plane takes off.
My first months in the United States are as difficult and as fun as life can be to a naïve kid who’s never been outside his own perverse country. Sergey and I have chosen Albany, New York. We have a pal here, Igor, another Russian émigré. Even if I would prefer to live in New York City, we have concluded that a relatively inexpensive smaller town would be an easier challenge for new immigrants. I’m optimistic, but I miss Luba terribly. Letters take so much longer to get here. At $2 per minute, international calls are for emergencies only.
While I run about ferretlike trying to ensure a minimal income, Luba is brilliant as ever. She obtains a US visa for herself and Sonya and finalizes her divorce. I can’t quite believe it when I learn she’s arriving on April 27th, 1991. I’m thrilled.
Igor volunteers to drive me to JFK. It’s a three-hour ride and the longest I’ve spent inside a car, in the US or back in the USSR, where cars are a rarity. If not for the adrenaline and the anticipation, I could admire the rock formations along the freeway, the happy trees perched on their crumbling faces.
Luba takes an hour to emerge from customs; all other passengers who look or speak Russian have already passed through. Sonya sleeps, bundled up in Luba’s arms. Our hug is awkward. I don’t know what to say first.
“How was your trip?”
“Terrible.” She grins—I remember this grin so well. “Can you imagine flying eighteen hours with a baby?”
On the way back, I keep Igor company in the front. He bought a baby seat at Goodwill—I’m humbled by this small kindness. We’re an odd group at an odd moment when so much must be said, but so much is unclear. I need to share how bad my financial circumstances are—but I also dread this sharing. I’ve done my best over the four months since my arrival, but my best has amounted to little. I’m embarrassed. I encouraged Luba to leave her wealthy husband, to emigrate with me—and all I have to offer her and her child is poverty and uncertainty.
At some point, the conversation turns to the fact that May’s rent is due in a week, and I don’t have the money.
“We’re going to have to dip into the dollars you got for your rubles.”
Officially, one can exchange no more than 500 rubles when traveling to the United States, yielding some $340 based on the fake conversion rate the communist authorities have made up, even if a dollar actually costs six rubles on the black market. I brought $343 with me, and I assume Luba has a comparative sum. I’m ashamed to ask for it.
“I gave that money to your mom. Didn’t she tell you?”
I turn in my seat to face her. “No. Why didn’t you check with me?”
“How? I couldn’t exactly make international calls from your mom’s apartment. I thought she’d settled this with you.” Luba pauses. “It’s my money anyway.”
I’m frozen with worry. We’d made plans to build a life here, but so far, I’m destitute. Still, it is Luba’s money—this much is indisputable.
We arrive in Albany. We thank Igor, and now it’s the three of us, beginning to relax. Our place features a relatively large living room, a kitchenette, a small bathroom, and a miniature bedroom that fits little more than the bed. Fortunately, Luba approves of my choice of wallpaper. We know we won’t spend the rest of our lives in a tiny place like this. I’m happy, worried, relieved.
I’m so excited to have access to disposable diapers. Finally.” Luba stands in the middle of our small living room, holding one up like a flag, a happy expression on her face.
“Yes. Much handier than dealing with the fabric option. Yuck. I won’t miss those.”
Across Madison Avenue, Washington Park waves to us with its tree branches. Sonya watches our conversation while being changed. It’s Luba’s turn.
“The wipes are an excellent idea too,” she adds.
We knew we would admire the West’s obvious advantages: access to books, food options, choices in clothes. What we hadn’t known is that many spheres of life had moved on to new tools, unavailable in the USSR. Diapers. Dental floss. Microwaves.
It’s time for Sonya’s nap. Her crib is in the living room—it wouldn’t fit anywhere else. She’s been cranky all afternoon—she must be tired. She’ll fall asleep soon—then we can do any number of things: watch a movie banned in the USSR, make love, have tea, read poetry to each other. Later in the afternoon, I must work.
“I love that everyone smiles at me here.” Luba’s brow tightens in contemplation. “Not just the men—I mean, everyone is so friendly. I missed this back in Russia, even if I didn’t know it.”
“I missed it too.”
May through August 1991, we are loving and passionate and excited about our new life—but we face many practical difficulties and logistical disagreements. Most fights are about money, the lack thereof. Neither of us is right or wrong: all priorities are valid. A tight net of demands pulls at our limited resources.
“Do you have to take your ESL classes right now?” I ask.
“I need to work on my English. You’re lucky, yours is so much better.”
“Yours is good too. It’s just that babysitting Sonya while you go to class makes it impossible for me to get a second job.”
I’m working a periodic gig as an electrician’s assistant, performing all the physical effort of installing electrical circuits at a new factory. It’s hard labor, but not quite enough hours to cover our expenses.
“If I don’t improve my English, I can’t get a job.” Luba sounds firm.
“You could probably get one right now if you wanted to.”
I know she resents the difficulties, and I resent what I perceive as her lack of enthusiasm for trying to help. She yells, and I shut down. We don’t talk, we begin to talk, we work or study, we take care of Sonya. We do well for a while, then we fight again.
On one of our most penniless evenings, Luba and I pack Sonya in her stroller and set out hunting for bottles and cans to recycle. We hope to approach minimum wage—all it takes is a can or two a minute. We wear rubber gloves. It’s a depressing experience but an adventure—after all, we may never fall so low again. It’s a chilly night.
“Will this one claim any money?” Luba holds a strangely shaped wine bottle, elegant and thin, with a glass handle that must have been also filled with wine.
I examine it and find no reference to a bottle deposit.
“I don’t think so.”
“It’s beautiful. I’m tempted to pick it up anyway.”
“I feel as if none of this is real. We couldn’t imagine this a year ago, could we?”
“It’s completely unreal.” Luba nods.
Sonya is sound asleep in her stroller.
As we prowl Albany’s streets with the homeless and the hopeless for our five-cent prizes, the dark downtown buildings stare down in disgust. We are not put off: we’d rather be collecting cans in the United States than engaging in our intellectual pursuits in the Soviet Union. We are both convinced that there’s no future there, in a country with no freedom, no access to books, no basic necessities.
Tensions don’t quiet from one interaction to the next. I’m still worried about money, offended at something Luba said yesterday, wishing she approached our shared problems differently.
“Why did you move my books?” I sound irritated; I realize this too late. It’s not about the books.
“I was cleaning. I moved them over to the windowsill. They were just stacked here on the floor in the middle of the room.” Luba is friendly, but I’m still upset; I can’t push the gloom away.
“You could’ve put them back.”
“So you want me to clean and take care of the baby and make sure I put the books back in the middle of the room?” Sarcasm grows in Luba’s voice. “What else do you want me to do?”
“I was working. I take care of Sonya at other times.”
“I’m looking for work.”
I’m being ridiculous. These are the kinds of scenes I’ll end up most embarrassed about.
July, Luba finds a part-time job at a hot dog stand in Downtown Albany. It’s reasonable work; Luba assures me that wearing tank tops increases the tips. We both trade hours with Sonya and working. Between the two of us, it’s easier to pay the rent.
Luba is social. She’s been going out with friends, leaving me with Sonya. She is late now and then, as she used to be during our months in Leningrad.
“Why do you have to be out so long?” I ask.
“I like it. You wouldn’t enjoy it. You don’t even like spending time with people.”
“Not true. I had a very social life back in Leningrad. In any case, it’s not fair that I should stay home with Sonya so much. A couple of times I was late for work because you were late.”
“It’s not my fault we can’t afford a babysitter. If I hadn’t divorced my husband, I wouldn’t have to worry about any of this.”
“I didn’t force you to divorce him.”
“Yes, you did.”
In October 1991, a few inconsistencies in Luba’s accounts lead to a confrontation.
“It’s true, I’m seeing someone.” Her face is firm, sad, familiar, different.
Heat all over me, from inside. So she did lie about more than her city of origin.
“I love you,” she continues, “but we fight so much. We fight all the time. I can’t do this anymore. It’s destroying me.”
I don’t understand—I must be more resilient to our type of fighting. Even if I hate our fights with every fiber, I wouldn’t abandon the relationship.
“When did it start, this affair?”
“About a month ago. It’s a guy I met at the hot dog stand.”
So, this happens in my own life. Someone makes other plans, moves behind my back. A wind of sadness sweeps through me—in an instant, I’ve grown older.
Luba picked me first, she leaves me first.
Where does the truth end? Where do lies start? Luba’s never been fond of her parents, claiming that they are full of shit: insincere, sold out. I’ve never met them; she knows much more about mine. We are too young to ask too many questions about family, to wonder about the origins of our personalities, our choices. I don’t have enough information to make conclusions.
Our breakup is more a concept than reality. We’re still drawn to each other, body and soul. We meet at her new place or back at mine, each date filled with passion and tension. Neither of us is ready to surrender the claim on the other. I can’t be sure what’s going on in Luba’s mind, but I still haven’t met anyone more interesting—and haven’t tried very hard, stuck between my commitment to writing, my burning interest for books and films unavailable in the USSR, and my insecurity about the possibility of a relationship with any of my American acquaintances.
In 1993, Luba breaks the stalemate.
“I’m moving to the West Coast.” Her voice is firm over the phone.
Something in me knows or wants to think it knows: this is for the best.
I throw up from anxiety when we hang up. We’ve been fighting and reconciling for several years; I must be addicted to this awful dynamic. We meet twice on her last day in town for tense words and desperate sex.
Thirteen years pass. It’s October 2006. I’m thirty-eight. Luba and I haven’t been in touch. For ten of these years, I was married to another woman—now my marriage is over. I’m lonely half the time—the other half, my son Xander is with me. I’ve lived in Portland, Oregon since 2003.
The internet has flourished since Luba and I last saw each other. I google her and am shocked to find her picture, a San Francisco phone number next to it. Fascinating. During my own years in the Bay Area, 1996-2003, I didn’t look for her, fearing she might still hold power over me. Our lives there must have overlapped.
In the picture, Luba looks herself, the usual spark in her cheerful face. This virtual encounter sends a flood of excitement and anguish through me. Should I call?
I pace about for a minute or two to calm down.
Her voice on the answering machine—in English, with a small accent.
“You know who this is,” I say in Russian. “Give me a call.”
I don’t know how Luba feels about the prospect of talking again, but a few hours later, the phone rings. Luba’s voice. She’s excited to hear from me, invites me to visit.
Luba hasn’t changed much—she is full of energy and humor, interesting thoughts and ambitious plans. She has a full, successful life, with her own business and many friends. The only thing that’s changed: she no longer speaks Russian without mixing in handfuls of English words. We switch back and forth between the two languages. This feels a little strange considering our entire relationship has transpired in Russian—but not strange enough to embarrass these two language travelers.
We kiss and reminisce and lightly consider what might happen—but we are both hesitant. Luba is in a tentative relationship; I’m still uncertain about the dissolution of my marriage. Neither of us wants to unpack the heavy baggage in the basement of our shared life.
Luba invites me to dinner, and I get to see Sonya again. At sixteen, she is smart and opinionated. I’m glad she’s grown to be an insightful, sparkling human being, even if my presence in her life was short, too short to feel sentimental about her. A total of seven months of taking care of her alongside Luba was not enough for a deep attachment or a parental feeling, especially for a twenty-two-year-old—but I wish her well. Luba fills her in about the key details of our past.
“I’m so exited about that,” Sonya says. “You guys were brave. But I don’t remember anything.”
I return to Portland undecided. We talk on the phone, and I realize that a renewed relationship may not live up to the original one. Our personalities, our paths have diverged.
Luba must have her own reservations. We settle into occasional interactions on Facebook and a phone call or two a year.
By December 2018, many details of my past are vague in memory as if they belonged in a novel I read in my youth. I share the first draft of this essay with Luba and call to discuss it.
“You forgot so much.”
“You were mad at me.” Luba sounds agitated. “That time on the way back from the airport, when you picked me up.”
“Yes. You said I was a bad wife to you. That hurt me so much.”
“I said that? Seriously or as a joke?”
“You were serious. Igor was there.”
The context eludes me; I can’t place this statement within the way I remember that day. But I must have said this or something like this, a sarcastic half-joke. It hurt Luba enough to be remembered twenty-five years later.
“The other thing I remember is the air at JFK,” Luba adds. “I noticed it as soon as I arrived. It was the sweetest air I’d ever breathed.”
I remember my own first impression: a beautiful sea of multiethnic faces.
“We’ve made it to the better times,” I say. “I wish I had more patience and compassion back then. I’m sorry.”
“We both did shitty things. I’m sorry for my part as well.” Luba thinks a moment. “Please have compassion for yourself. We were insanely young.” In the small pause, I stare into the darkness outside my window. “By the way, I was going to ask you to change my name, but now I see that you can’t, especially considering your title.”
“No, I can’t.”
Lubov, the Russian word for love.
“I’m fond of my name,” Luba adds, as if reading my thoughts. “With a name comes responsibility. Mine is to take the pain away. People just start talking to me, telling me things they’ve never shared with anyone.”
She’s been a therapist for many years.
Our breakup seemed tragic at the time—but it doesn’t feel tragic when I fast-forward twenty-five years into myself. I’m in the best relationship of my life—a more fitting one for the person I’ve become. I wouldn’t want to have missed out on it.
I’ve learned a few things. For me, truth is a requirement. I need to trust my partner’s substantial statements. Also, I’ve learned to worry less about preferences that lie outside ethics, to be more flexible in logistical negotiations. I’ve learned that the other person’s experience of the same interaction can be vastly different from my own.
Luba insists that moving to the States is the one decision she’s never had any doubts about. From what I can tell, she, too, is content with her life. She’s never gone back to Russia; she’s delighted that Sonya has had the opportunity to grow up here.
Is former tragedy what they call wisdom? Is this a happy ending, or simply a different one? We helped each other peel off our more selfish selves, gave each other permission to hope for a better future. And then, separately, we made better futures for ourselves. I regret nothing. It’s a relief to be on good terms, this side of harm.
A. Molotkov is a supporter of Ukraine. His poetry collections are The Catalog of Broken Things, Application of Shadows, Synonyms for Silence, and Future Symptoms. His memoir A Broken Russia Inside Me about growing up in the USSR and making a new life in America is forthcoming from Propertius; he co-edits The Inflectionist Review. His collection of ten short stories, Interventions in Blood, is part of Hawai’i Review Issue 91; his prose is represented by Laura Strachan at Strachan Lit. Please visit him at AMolotkov.com.