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Party Politics

The Third Component: Part I, Chapter 6

Alison Christy 30 November 2008

Photo Credit: Tim Christy

Anna has decided to stop making stupid decisions, so she drinks only a single shot of vodka

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 6

The blue-eyed Helper from the Irish pub is actually a runner named Dakota who aspires to make it clear across Asia on foot. She ran across Europe already, from Portugal to Moscow, and now she is taking a short break before running on. Her boyfriend Amir is cycling along beside her to make sure she is safe. He is a real sweetheart and so supportive. She is so glad he is here, she never could have done it without him. If Anna is really interested in running in Moscow, she knows a team of people who get together in the mornings and do some serious distances.

Dakota tells Anna all of this in a soft, calming patter while she gently palpates Anna’s ankle, moving it from side to side, trying to ascertain how badly she has damaged herself. The apartment smells of warm bread and yeast: Frank and Marina are in the little kitchen area, talking loudly in Russian while they cook the blini.

“I think you’ll be okay,” Dakota says. “I haven’t had any injuries yet, knock on wood. Although once in a particularly hilly region of France I didn’t think I was going to be able to keep going the next day. But I did. Sometimes it’s good to run through the pain.”

So Marina is not French, Dakota is not a Helper, and Frank is not a Business Man; at least the man who Anna had labeled an English businessman turns out to be English, and working in communications. His name is Tom, and he introduces Yulia, a blonde Russian ballet dancer who looks approximately fifteen and gives Anna a limp, uninterested hand to shake. Sergei is Russian, a slim man with pale, mouse-colored hair and long fingers, and Sasha is Russian too, but broad-shouldered and dark, with heavy eyebrows and a loud, booming voice.

The other American, Rick, sits down beside Anna once Dakota leaves. He smiles at her in a way that he must think is charming. He has smooth dark hair, a clean designer T-shirt, and polished shoes that he doesn’t remove in the apartment, and he tells her he has a Fulbright scholarship to study the Soviet transition into capitalism. He says he has Moscow figured out.

“It’s all about the bribes here,” he says. “You pay the cops, you pay the guys you do business with, you pay for the women.” He says this as if he thinks she will find his knowledge attractive.

When Anna doesn’t respond, he leaves her and tries his charms on Yulia, who walks awkwardly, duck-like, her feet and hips pointed outward under her short skirt. But Yulia seems to find everyone there uninteresting; she tosses her thin hair and tells Tom to pour her a glass of wine.

Frank spreads a tablecloth out on his floor and the new guests all find places along the edges. Sasha thinks that his mother’s blini were much better than Frank’s, and he finds it very funny that Frank would cook these blini himself, especially with Marina there to cook for him. Yulia eats a single blin, looking at each forkful with withering contempt; she even says something caustic, in Russian, about Frank being womanly. She sits on the floor with her thin legs bent at an uncomfortable angle and pours herself more wine. Marina thinks the blini are delicious. Sergei walks out on the meal every fifteen minutes or so to go smoke on the porch.

Frank hands his guitar to Sasha, who plays a song that everyone seems to know. They all join in the chorus, except Anna and Dakota and Amir, who laugh with everyone else anyway. Sasha plays another that the Russians all know, stomping his foot hard on the floor and singing loudly. Then he points to Anna. “You will know this song!” he shouts, and he plays “Smoke on the Water,” singing along with the chords: Duh duh duh, duh duh duhduh, duh duh duh, duh duh.

Musicians, she thinks.

Sasha winks at Anna, passes the guitar back to Frank and goes out on the porch for a cigarette. Frank starts strumming the chords to “Sweet Home Alabama” and Yulia claps her hands in a startling burst of enthusiasm; her hair is falling all around her face and she seems very drunk.

Anna (at a strange man’s house, with a twisted ankle) has decided to stop making stupid decisions, so she drinks only a single shot of vodka, followed by a pickle (“you must have the pickle,” Marina said, “the pickle is traditional Russian”), and then she tries to fade into the pattern on the sofa, a simple observer of the Russian party. So when Sasha comes back from his cigarette and sits down beside her and starts telling her that her eyes are beautiful, she rolls them and tries to ignore him; and then she looks across the room at Rick and Marina who are kissing, open-mouthed, by the large dark particle-board cabinet, and she is sober enough to be surprised. Frank is strumming his guitar and talking intently to Tom and Sergei, and doesn’t even seem to notice Marina and Rick.

Are parties always like this, in America and in Russia, in college and in graduate school and beyond? People never seem to grow up and move beyond drinking too much and letting themselves do things they might not ordinarily do. It was one of the things Anna learned from dating an older man: when they went out, his friends acted just like her friends, only with kids at home, and divorces and mortgages instead of ex-boyfriends and student loans.

“I like American girls,” Sasha says into her ear, the kind of compliment that is not really a compliment at all. He moves in to kiss her but he is drunk, and he aims sloppily, so it is easy to duck her head to avoid him. But because of the way she is sitting, on the floor with her twisted ankle stretched out in front of her, her other foot kicks over a glass of wine as she dodges, and Frank comes running over with a ragged kitchen towel and assurances that his brown-and-orange carpet is essentially Astroturf and thus phenomenally stain-resistant.

By this point Yulia is passed out on the carpet, her hair spilling over her face. The wine puddle slips dangerously close to her skirt, but Frank catches it with his towel before it actually reaches her, and tells Tom that it might be time to take his jailbait back home.

“She’s twenty-one,” Tom says drunkenly. “I saw her license. I made sure I saw her license.”

“Whatever,” Frank says. Dakota, who has drunk only water all evening from plastic bottles she brought with her in a canvas tote bag, is yawning pointedly and looking with annoyance at her bulky runner’s watch and at her slightly drunken boyfriend, who is talking to Tom and clearly having a great time. Rick is nuzzling Marina’s neck: it is becoming extremely difficult to look over in their corner. Sergei comes in from the porch and picks up the guitar, but after plucking a few notes he puts it down again and goes back out on to the porch.

Tom pulls Yulia up from the floor and carries her, more or less, out of the apartment, and Marina and Rick leave at the same time as Dakota and Amir: so Anna is left with Frank, Sergei and Sasha, unsure whether she should ask one of them to take her back to the hotel or just wait for one of them to leave. The three men sit around the tablecloth and the remains of the meal, apparently content to sit and play and drink on into the night.

Sergei plays a Russian folk melody, trilling the guitar strings with his long yellow fingernails. Anna sits on the floor, her back against the couch, and thinks about her own folksongs. She never got particularly good at the kokle, partly because they were difficult to come by. She couldn’t even play an old, traditional kokle, because she’d learned on a modernized one that played the minor keys. Perversely, the old kokles were all instruments in the major keys, but the traditional Latvian songs were in minor – her school had fancy, modern kokles, so the students could sing the songs while they played.

Soon the bees will all be buzzing,
New calves trembling in the field.
The farmer watches out his window,
Waiting for the snow to thaw.

The unrhymed quatrains, or dainas, were according to Dzintara Kalnins, her teacher at the Draudziba Latvian Saturday School, the reason Latvians were Latvian. Once upon a time, the people who are now Latvian were just a collection of tribes living on the south of the Baltic Sea, on the northern edge between Europe and Asia. This land, Dzintara said, was a fertile area of strategic importance, made even more appealing by the wealthy German-founded town of Riga; so in came the German crusaders, who called the land Livonia. Then came the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and then the Swedes, and then the Russians. You couldn’t blame them. Who wouldn’t want to rule the green land of Latvia? Which wasn’t even Latvia yet, but just a region of land in the Baltics around the beautiful lonely city of Riga.

Enter our hero, Kristjanis Barons, who traveled the countryside writing down the songs of his people. Each daina he recorded was numbered according to topic and placed in the fantastically named Cabinet of Songs. And as he recorded their dainas, the different tribes in their different regions of the Baltics – Latgallians, Semgallians, Selonians, Couronians – realized the commonalities of their history, culture and language, and decided that they were a Latvian people.

So once they had decided they were Latvians, they wanted their own country. In the confusion following the first World War the newly awakened Latvians declared their independence, and on November 18, 1918, Latvia became her own country for the very first time – for a glorious twenty-two years before the Soviet Occupation.

So Anna values the dainas, even if she can’t play the kokle very well; they are her culture, her tradition.

Frank plays another song, this one faster and darker than the one he played for her earlier. He sings it in a deep growling voice, and Sergei and Sasha sing along at the chorus:

That girl on your arm, that's one sweet pot of honey (krysha!)
She laugh at your jokes, but she don't think you're funny (krysha!)
No one has jobs, we all just got paid (krysha!)
Your bread, my salt, his hand grenade (krysha!)
Krysha krysha krysha – krysha!

You want post-revisionist dezinformatsiya (krysha!)
We believe in just vodka and the organizatsiya (krysha!)
This ain't fighting, baby, we call this an arms race (krysha!)
We burn in the sky like a suka in space (krysha!)
Krysha krysha krysha – krysha!

The lyrics are just rumbling syllables to Anna, but the melody makes her think of the streets of Moscow: the deep colors, the putrid smells, the horns and bells, the foreign sounds. What was she doing, jogging in such a strange country? Even Dakota brought Amir to cycle along beside her. Maybe she should have waited until Milda or Corey could come with her. Maybe she just shouldn’t have come.

The men play a few more songs, passing the guitar back and forth between them, and then Sasha suggests, patting Anna’s bare knee affectionately, that he can take Anna back to her hotel. Frank tells her that she is welcome to stay at his place – he’ll give her the couch-bed and he’ll spread out his sleeping bag on the floor.

If you think Anna should stay at Frank’s house, turn to page 23.
If you think Anna should let Sasha take her home, turn to page 62.
If you think Anna should brave the streets and hobble home alone, turn to page 7.

“I’ll stay here,” Anna says. “If that’s okay.”

{Continued next week}