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Fiction

The Law of Moscow

The Third Component: Part I, Chapter 4

Alison Christy 16 November 2008

www.lablit.com/article/437

Photo Credit: Tim Christy

She was thirty years old with a Ph.D. in Cellular Biology and Genetics, and after an hour with her parents she felt like an awkward, irritable teenager

Editor's note: We are pleased to continue the weekly serialization of The Third Component, a novel by Alison Christy: a scientist at loose ends after earning her PhD sets off to Russia in search of a missing piece of her family's past.

Chapter 4

Familial aggregation of behavioral traits

With each graduation, each greater achievement, her family got less excited. When she finished high school everyone came, including Aunt Lidija and all of Anna’s aunts and uncles and Milda, home from her freshman year of college, and they gave her gifts and cards and well-wishes; when she graduated from college, only the immediate family came to see her walk across the stage; and then in June, when she got her Ph.D, it was just her parents. Her younger brother Corey was in the middle of finals, Milda was in Riga, Aunt Lidija had died and the rest of the family was possibly a little bored and confused with Anna’s perpetual schooling.

It might have been easier if there were other scientists, or even physicians, in the family. One of Aunt Lidija’s daughters married a pharmacist, so that was something. But they always asked her, now what do you do exactly? and understood only that she was somehow still in school, though she wasn’t taking classes, and that she did something with yeast, though she wasn’t trying to cure or treat any specific diseases. They said, so then you’re trying to make stronger yeast, for better bread products? They said, yeast, now people do say that can be bad for you, do you think I shouldn’t eat yeast? They said, aren’t you worried you might make a super-yeast that could take over the world?

She was barely speaking to John by her graduation; during the ceremony, he lowered her Ph.D. hood over her head like a garrote and she turned, shook his hand formally and walked across the stage to her seat. Her parents must have been happy; they could pretend he’d never existed and take her out to dinner alone.

Of course they never would have known she was dating her Ph.D. advisor if Milda hadn’t told them.

“My God, you’re almost thirty,” she said primly when Anna yelled at her over the phone. “You shouldn’t be dating people you can’t tell your parents about.”

But maybe at her age Milda should have better things to do than gossip with their mother about Anna's choices.

They went to a Chinese restaurant after the graduation ceremony and her parents told her about the Gartners, friends of theirs who had traveled to St. Petersburg and Moscow on a tour, paying extra – two thousand dollars extra, her mother said – to go on a tour of Europe that avoided Germany. Although, as her father pointed out, they still went to France, Italy, Austria and Russia, none of whom had great track records with respect to the Jews. Still, her mother said, you couldn’t hate everyone; you couldn’t just not go to Europe.

“Remember how you and Milda used to play Americans versus Russians out in the backyard?” her mother asked.

“That never happened, Mom,” Anna said.

“You did,” her mother said. “I made you stop when you made her eat dirt.”

“That’s not what happened,” Anna said. It was pointless to explain. Her mother had decided that this was the truth and she would stick to it, unswerving. She did this all the time, as if her brain simply reorganized all of her memories to make them closer to what she wanted them to be. It was the kind of quirk that might not bother Anna in a friend or a person she had just met, but in her mother it drove her crazy. She felt like screaming and throwing her water glass across the table.

“You don’t remember. You were too young,” her mother said.

“So what are your plans?” her father asked. “Now that you’re a doctor. Not a doctor doctor, but a – what are you exactly?”

Then their food arrived, and thankfully they could just talk about the food: whether it was good, and the other Chinese restaurants they’d tried, and they could reach across the table and taste each other’s Kung Pao chicken and Mongolian beef, and constantly affirm that each dish was, in fact, delicious, and they could ask each other if they wanted dessert and reaffirm that they were so full they couldn’t eat another bite.

Her father’s fortune read: You will be going on a long journey.

“That one’s for Anna,” her mother said. “Give that one to Anna.”

He gave that cookie to Anna and cracked open the one Anna had taken. The thin slip of paper read: You will be successful in every undertaking.

“No, no, give that one to Anna,” her mother said. “David, give that one to Anna.”

She was thirty years old with a Ph.D. in Cellular Biology and Genetics, and after an hour with her parents she felt like an awkward, irritable teenager. “Please Mom,” Anna said. “I don’t need a fortune.”

She refused to eat either cookie, knowing that in her mother’s mythology the magic of the fortune was transferred into the body only after the cookie had been consumed. She couldn’t imagine how she was going to live with them until she left for Russia at the end of July. But she had nowhere else to go.

**********

In the pitch-black, shaky elevator that stinks of urine and gasoline and shakes violently as it passes each floor, Anna decides that she has made a terrible decision. She should run, she thinks, once the elevator stops, if the elevator stops before the ancient cables snap. But when she gets into the American man’s hallway – which has familiar yellow lights, and Soviet blue walls, and smells only of boiled cabbage and onions – she finds herself following him into his apartment.

It is always a bad idea – but especially in a large city in a foreign country when you are injured – to go home with a man you have just met. But Frank’s apartment was closer than the Hotel Rossiya, and he pointed out as they limped along the street that Anna was going to miss everything about Moscow if she just stayed in her hotel room, and if she came to his place, he said, he could make sure that the people of Moscow were brought to her. He said that Americans in a place like Moscow had a duty to look out for each other. He talks a lot, and she finds that somehow comforting.

Frank tells her he is a graduate student – a professional student, more or less, and his small, crumbling studio apartment looks like the kind of place where a student would live. The shiny dark-brown particle board cabinets that loom over most of one wall, the cheap dark red rug that takes up most of another wall, and the stiff brown-and-orange floral carpet that matches the orange-and-brown curtains were all there when he moved in. He says he has lived in the apartment for a month, but the only evidence Anna can find of his occupation are two tall stacks of books on the floor, a box of cereal in the kitchen and a guitar propped up against the wall.

When Anna is finally stretched out on Frank’s couch with a very cold bottle of vodka pressed against her ankle (the freezer apparently doesn’t have ice), Frank brews coffee.

“You see, this sprain would never have happened to me,” he says, “because I would never go jogging. Because I already know I would twist my ankle, if I didn’t get arrested or hit by a bus first. It’s the Law of Moscow.”

He is not the kind of man anyone would pick out of a crowd, but he is not unattractive. Anna smiles at him and tugs awkwardly at her short running shorts.

“When I first came to Moscow, I had this theory that the farther I got from my bed, the worse my day would get,” Frank says from his kitchen. “It was exponential: one block from bed, pretty bad, five blocks from bed, very bad.” He hands Anna a cup of coffee. “Now I just consider how much time it should take me to get something done, and I multiply it by ten. That seems to work out pretty well.”

“No, I know,” Anna says. “I could barely find my way out of my hotel.”

She shifts on the couch, wondering if she should ask him for a pair of pants, feeling like she shouldn’t be there, like she should insist that he take her back to the hotel that once seemed so oppressive and now seems like a refuge.

“So why Tomsk?” Frank asks. “Are they doing really great yeast work out there?”

Strangely her family history – the things she’d told people all her life, that she’d insisted on telling them, almost immediately – seems somehow personal here, intimate, not the kind of thing she would share with a stranger. “I wanted, you know, a little vacation,” Anna says.

She winces in anticipation of his next question, which will be, A vacation in Siberia? Are you nuts? Haven’t you heard of the Caribbean?

So instead she asks him if he plays the guitar, which she knows is a stupid question, because if he didn’t the instrument surely wouldn’t be there leaning against the wall. But he enthusiastically picks it up when she asks, and strums a few chords.

“Do you play?”

“No,” she says. “But I used to play the kokle. It’s like a zither, or a dulcimer. You sit it on your lap and strum.”

“Lithuanian?”

“Latvian.”

He starts singing as he strums:

In my Brezhnev Era youth, when I was hiding from the truth,
All the girls collectivized my heart;
They seized my assets and my ass for the proletariat class
And I gave it up to each and every tart.

But I would privatize my lovin’ for the chance to call you mine.
I’d decentralize my heart for you, my girl.
Let them think that I’m bourgeois – that’s my one and only flaw
And I would privatize my heart to call you mine.

I lived by that old creed “to each according to her needs”
And I gave my skills the best that I could do;
And when true love came to call, I just hid behind my Wall,
And my Iron Curtain wouldn’t let it through.

But I’d decentralize my lovin’ for the chance to call you mine.
I would privatize my heart for you, my girl.
Yes, I’ve finally caught the bug – you could say that Atlas shrugged –
And I would privatize my heart to call you mine.

As soon as the song is finished, Frank laughs at himself. “This is what I do when Moscow gets too intimidating – I sit in my apartment and write country songs that only people who know too much about Russia would ever understand.”

Probably trying to seduce her, poor guy, Anna thinks. The guitar, the song, the soft mouth and the muddy gray eyes – they might work on the kind of girl who goes for musicians, but Anna is not that kind of girl; she prefers brilliant, driven men, geniuses like John, men with edges, men who challenge her, who push her to be better than she is.

He strums a quick chord progression. “So, are you planning a trip to Petersburg before you head out east?”

“No,” she says. “I think I’d prefer Moscow to Petersburg anyway.”

“Nobody prefers Moscow to Petersburg,” Frank says. He sets the guitar back against the wall. “I’m going to invite some people to come over this evening – some Russians, some expats living in Moscow. A real Russian dinner party.”

“Okay,” Anna says.

“My friend Marina will come over to help cook, okay?”

Friend, Anna thinks. Of course, a girlfriend. It makes her feel a little safer, a little less stupid for following him to his apartment. Her smile comes a little easier and she nods with enthusiasm, pressing the vodka bottle against her swollen ankle.

{Continued next week}