Like a child again

The Third Component: Part II, Chapter 16

Alison Christy 9 February 2009

Photo Credit: Tim Christy

She knows as well as anyone how quickly graduate students are forgotten and the environment changes to accommodate new people

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 16

The Circadian Rest-Activity Rhythm is Altered By Prolonged Bed-Rest and Inactivity

When I first came to Moscow it was the summer of 1992 and I was all of twenty-six years old. I had studied journalism, because I wanted to tell stories, and the Russian language, because I wanted to read Dostoyevsky in the original. I spoke German, too, and my goal was to travel around the former East Germany and write about it. After all, I reasoned, no other country had such a dramatic and controversial history. And there were so many little differences, so many quirky German things that made great stories when I was talking on the phone to my friends back home, and would have to be equally fascinating to the world at large.

Then I went to Moscow in 1992, following up on a story about an East German who was starting up a business in Berlin with a Russian partner. And from the minute I crossed that eastern border it seemed like Germany might just as well be America. Just like the buildings and highways in Moscow that are built on a ridiculous, massive scale, the daily life there was so extraordinary to me that I couldn't even fathom how people carried on. I fell in love, just like that, with the city and the crazy, dynamic country. Everything was changing and everything was bizarre. The hell with Germany, I thought, this was my true life's calling: to travel around the former Soviet Union and write about the changes.

I was very naïve back then. I quickly found out that I wasn't the only English-speaker who wanted to travel around Russia and write about all of the country's quirks. And Americans only needed so many articles that pointed out how hard or different it was to live in Moscow. I wasn't going to make it if I couldn't be different.

I was pondering this dilemma over a beer at an Irish pub in downtown Moscow when I met R. Matthew Delamater, an established British travel writer who was filming a documentary in Russia at the time. I recognized him immediately and bought him a whisky; perhaps that's why Delamater took a liking to me and agreed to look over my work and give me some advice.

"Always write about a quest, Mikey," he said. "You can go to Ulan Ude and write a whole book about it, but you're not going to give the reader any more information than he might find in a travel guide. So you've got to make up a quest for yourself. Like you've got to find the best ice cream in Ulan Ude, or maybe you want to find out how many people are directly descended from Genghis Kahn. Something. People understand quests and they like them – that's why the first literature anywhere, ever, was about questing. Read Joseph Campbell. Your reader will identify with your passion and your setbacks. Most importantly, he'll get an idea of who you are and what it's like to be you, and that's what he really wants to read about." He patted me on the shoulder, always affectionate when he was drunk. "Lives before lines, Mikey. People will always care more about your life story than anything else you write."

I spent the next week searching Moscow for the complete works of Joseph Campbell in English. After that, I wrote an article about that very search, entitled A Call to Adventure: Searching for the Heroic in the New Moscow. Unbelievably, it sold.

– from Michael Perch, "A Lifelong Quest: Becoming a Travel Writer", reprinted in Turn Left at the Yak in the Road: A Life of Travel, Transit Press, 2000.


She is lying on her bunk with her hands behind her head and the train is rocking gently underneath her, and Michael Perch is telling her all about the history of sex on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. He looks like Frank but he's not, he's Michael Perch, and he's talking about a couple who did it in the bathroom in March of 1999 and another who made out all over a first class car in October of 1997 and a particularly interesting blow-job in the summer of 1998 and a rather acrobatic act of anal sex just a few months ago. He is describing the acts wryly, wittily, his voice like music, and Anna is lying beside him, giggling softly, delighted that he is here and telling her all these things, and waiting patiently for him to finally just shut up and make love to her already, very quietly so her coupe-mates won't hear.

And then he finally stops talking, and finally starts to kiss her and rub against her, but just then she wakes up and the train is still rocking underneath her, and her whole body is aching with want, and she hopes she didn't make any sounds in her sleep.


John probably has a new girlfriend now, someone young and pretty; or maybe someone older than her, closer to his own age, wiser and more sensible. The whole world that surrounded her every day proceeds without her on the other side of the world while her train skates through Siberia. The other graduate students and post-docs in the lab are picking up where she left off: tending her yeast cultures, working on the questions her work opened up for them; she knows as well as anyone how quickly graduate students are forgotten and the environment changes to accommodate new people. The other students who shared her kitchen and sitting room will have gotten used to the new student who is sleeping in her room, using her dresser, filling her bookshelves with other textbooks, spitting toothpaste into her sink.

She was right there, just hours before the bomb went off, she was right there in the underpass at Pushkinskaya. It could have been her, in the smoke and the terror. She would have gone home after that, if she had survived, and if she hadn't – her life would be so easily erased right now, the only evidence of her existence a few boxes in her mother's basement and a collection of lab notebooks in John's office. Her parents have Milda; Milda has a husband and children. She would barely be missed.

She feels her fragility, a single tiny person awake and alone, moving insistently along the train tracks of a vast country in a vaster, darker universe.

She may have fallen asleep for a little while, but the sun comes up too early and she can't sleep any more, despite her exhaustion, because of the light coming through the salmon-colored curtains of her train car. She can't get up either, because she doesn't want to wake up her coupe-mates; she has to wallow in her own thoughts for hours before she can get up and brush her teeth in the little stainless-steel commode and have a hot cup of tea with the fresh bread she bought at the station in Ekaterinburg, where she made the choice not to return to the Perm Gulag Museum – because she could always stop by, on the way back through, and because it was important to keep going, to allow inertia to propel her toward her goal; because if she stopped to think about how she was going to actually get to Krolosk from Tomsk she might never make it.

When the others start to wake and move around the cabin she does too, and she sits on the bottom bunk with The Lights Up North open on her lap, staring at the page while her thoughts wander.

It's difficult even to imagine what it would be like to not know the things she knows, like the fact that the Earth revolves around the sun or the existence of cells and bacteria; to feel her own heart beating and not know that it is a contracting muscle pumping blood through her body; to see her hand and not know it is lined with bone and tendon; to think and not know that the brain is the seat of her thoughts; or to make bread and not know that yeast feeds on sugars in bread dough and releases ethanol and carbon dioxide. Like language: it's impossible to look, now, at the English words on the page of her book and not immediately, effortlessly understand them.

But here the language is not hers – not even the alphabet, whose letters resemble her own just enough that her brain tries valiantly to make sense of them. HOBO-CIБIPCK she reads as Hobosibipsk, though she can decode the letters to Novosibirsk if she tries. Just similar enough to be confusing.

It is like being a child again: illiterate, with very little knowledge of the language and no way to make herself understood. And she doesn't know what time it is, and she never feels hungry, so she eats when Tanya and her husband do, sharing food with them in a friendly silence, and they bring her tea from somewhere on the train, and she goes to sleep when they do and gets up with them as well. A wordless, mindless dependence.

{Continued next week}