Saturday, September 8, 2007

Soap Opera Sunday - The KGB and Me - pt. 2

Soap Opera Sunday from Brillig and Walking Kateastrophe - find the other participants on their blogs today, and join the fun!

For part one of this tale, go here.

Part 2:

It was about a week ago, and it was one of the weirdest things yet. And that’s saying something in a country where each day was made up of “weird.”

“Why was my phone changed?” I stood in front of the “reception,” which was misnomer if ever there was one. The two regulars behind the desk still flew from me like pigeons whenever I approached. They were clearly still frightened of being stuck with an American guest for three months.

The shorter, stouter one looked up from behind her magazine. “Shto?” “What?”

“Why do I have a new phone?” I said this calmly. Quietly. I wasn’t trying to draw attention.

She did the Soviet shrug. “Neeznayoo.” She ran the word together – Idon’tknow. “You don’t have a new phone. Why would you have a new phone? There is no new phone.”

Okay, so that was an answer. Of sorts.

“Well, when I left for school this morning, I had a gray phone in my room. And it worked perfectly well. Now, as I return from school, I have a bright red phone and there are odd clicking noises and I can hear bits of other conversations occasionally.” I placed my hand on the counter and leaned in. The smooth wood felt cool and comfortable and I leaned more fully against the counter. I was tired, my feet were aching from the walk home from school, and I wanted to get out of my teaching outfit and into my jeans.

“All our phones are red. It must be your old phone.” She ducked back behind the magazine and leaned against the back counter, putting more distance between us.

“Um… right.” I looked at the bank of gray phones sitting next to her on the back counter. She jumped a bit.

“No, our phones are grey. It is the room phones that are red.”

Umhmm… I gave up and went back to my room.

And then there was the student, who wouldn’t identify himself and had a much deeper voice than the usual, reedy teenaged voice that I would hear when a student called to ask for help or to issue an invitation. And, of course, this particular, unidentified student was only interested in my selling audio tapes I had brought and then setting up a black market sales thing in partnership with him. Which I was clearly going to do. Because my exchange meant nothing to me, right?

So, yeah, I kinda knew I was being watched by someone.


But if Tanya wasn’t ready for this information, I certainly wasn’t going to push it. We walked along the boulevard under the glorious sun, lifting our faces like sunflowers.


It was very different weather the day this all came to a head.

Tanya and Rimma and I were the accompanying teachers for the field trip for the November 7th vacation. Another anomaly in the Soviet school system – students usually took several-day “field trips” with their teachers during “holidays.” When the children actually did get holidays was still unclear to me. This was our second field trip and I had fought hard to be able to go. The upshot was that the buses we took and the youth hotel we stayed in were safe enough for Soviet children, but not for the American “guest”. This had left a bitter taste in everyone’s mouth.

But here I was, up in the mountains of the Caucasus, in a fairly lovely, if simple, youth hotel in the middle of a blizzard. It was around 9:30 at night, and Tanya and I were comfortably lounging in pajamas and keeping snug against the raging weather outside. We were talking about Pink Floyd, one of Tanya’s obsessions. I’d brought The Wall and we were listening to it on my portable cassette player, which I’d donate to the school at the end of my run there.

Tanya was. obsessive. with. Pink. Floyd. And I’d been listening to all her thoughts on Pink Floyd for about an hour. And we were having a real, girlfriend-bonding time. And this must have sparked something in Tanya’s conscience because all of a sudden she grabbed my wrist and tried to drag me off the bed where we were sprawled. Given that I was 5’3” and probably 125 or 130 and she was 5’1” and maybe 100, made this an interesting endeavor, but she did, in fact, pull me off the bed and out through the balcony door with such force that I was astounded.

We stood there, on the concrete balcony, in bare feet. Snow swirled around us and there were drifts already appearing at the corners of our 6’ by 6’ space.

“Tanya, what the?”

“Shhh… let me talk quickly. This is the only safe place.” She grabbed me close and whispered in my ear, her breath warming against the winds raging around us. She held me by the elbows, intimacy in her every gesture.

“It’s true,” she whispered. “It’s true, what you talked about at that café.”

Now, we’d had so many café conversations at this point that all I could think about was my chattering teeth. I shook my head.

“The KGB – I’ve been questioned!”

Oh my God.

I stood back from Tanya and searched her face. Her eyes had grown pale and glassy. I wondered if she’d start crying.

This all came out in a rush in that same warm breath against my ears and face. Almost like a lover’s embrace: “At my last Komsomol meeting they grilled me. They wanted to know where you’d been, what you’d done, whom you’d seen. They wanted me to go back to the beginning. They wanted… everything.”

She leaned away from me and the frigid air came swirling between us.

“We can go back in now,” she said, and she took my hand as she opened the door back into the room.

We dried off with towels made warm from the rack in the bathroom and said nothing for a bit. The Wall had run out on the cassette player and the room was silent.

I was unsurprised, but it was clear that Tanya had gone through some sort of transformation, both through her experience and through her confession.

“All in all, it was just a brick in the wall.”*

*From Pink Floyd’s “The Wall pt. 1”


Dedee said...

Wow. That's amazing. I can't wait to hear more.

Madam Crunchypants said...

So intriguing. It must have been nervewracking and frightening.

soccer mom in denial said...

First, I love tales of travel and living abroad. Brava for including this in SOS.

But oh. my. god. Oh My! I'm amazed you didn't throw up on the spot.

soccer mom in denial said...

Oh and one other thing. This was really, really well written.


Brillig said...

Oh my gosh, Jen. These experiences are so amazing. I can't comprehend living like that. Your first-hand accounts are gut-wrenching. I don't know how you, and millions of others, could cope with such hideousness.

This is exceptionally written-- Great stuff.

Fourier Analyst said...

Terrific!! What an adventurer you are! But I'm glad you are home safe and sound now! Great SOS!

Mikaela said...

I remembered you telling me about this during my exchange. The world was, and is really a scary place...

Unknown said...

Can't wait for next week!

anno said...

Maybe you were there in the 80s, but this reads like a LeCarre novel from 1972. Very Cold War stuff - I've loved following it!

Rebecca said...

weird? weird hardly seems a strong enough eword, does it? you must have sometimes felt like you were living in some kind of bizarre movie....or on another planet.

Were you ever scared?

jennifer said...

Wow. You're a real writer.
Not like some of us faking it...

Betsy said...

This was great! Loved it and can't wait to see what happened next!

Annette Lyon said...

Holy cow. I gotta know what comes next!

Jen said...

Thanks so much for all of the comments, Everyone!

Scared? Hmmm... you'll see scared next week. But in general, no. People were very warm and welcoming there for the most part.

Anonymous said...

Wow, Jen. What an amazing experience! I can't imagine what it must have been like to live this. Truly amazing and wonderful writing!