The Summer of 1997

It was the summer of 1997: cash in-hand was money; the prolific use of debit cards didn’t exist; CDs were being ripped and sold on the black market (I definitely bought from that market); Celine Dion and Whitney Houston were still singing to us;  Bill Clinton was at the start of his second term; Princess Diana would die at the end of this summer; DVDs were brand-new technology; the internet existed, but only just — access to the World Wide Web was limited to your dial-up connection and google had yet to be coined a verb.

In June of this year I moved back to Russia for what would become a summer never to be forgotten. 

My US-based company had a teeny-tiny satellite office located in Moscow, Russia, employing two or three Russians max, plus one American expat and his wife, who were in their mid-20s like me and my husband. We all spoke fluent Russian. I was sent over to train the teeny-tiny office staff on some data entry work our US office wanted to delegate and we allowed three months in Moscow for that very purpose. The American expat would make arrangements for our housing while we were in-country and I just needed to show up, passport and work Visa in-hand, ready to work.

Having lived in Russia previously, although never in Moscow, I arrived with  my rose-tinted glasses of loving everyone firmly perched on my nose and completely oblivious to the harsh fear-based system of what life in Russia actually looks like. 

Newly-arrived in our rented for the summer apartment I was surprised to see the rooms literally bulging with the landlady’s belongings, as if we had a key to someone else’s home but I didn’t want permission to be there. Had they left in a hurry, carelessly cramming their personal effects underneath the mattress believing my lying on top of their pile wouldn’t disclose their secrets in full view? The lingering layer of grease atop every single surface in the flat belie their claims to cleanliness and order. Unpacking meant keeping my suitcases open and accessible because there was no space, nook or cranny available for my belonging or belongings. 

Where to place my computer monitor and the beast of a tower needed to operate it? Plugging in to the local landline in order to connect, patiently, with the office nine hours behind me now required planning and hope that the phone here would be connected, dependent on a real life operator deciding my worthiness of connection. 

And so it happened on a summer’s eve that we went for a walk, exploring our neighborhood, hoping to find a street vendor selling some of our favorite tasty treats and we realized we were walking distance from Gorky Park, known back in the heyday of the Soviet era as an amusement park and gathering place for families. 

Our excitement quickly turned to disappointment and then concern as we found ourselves in a desolate has-been space, not kept up or even safe for after-dark strolling. Deciding quickly we would rather be in the grease-filled apartment figuring out supper than here in the middle of Gorky Park uncertain as to who or what we might encounter, we retraced our steps back to the flat where all of our possessions were locked behind two doors and five keys. 

Placing the first of our five keys in door one, lock one, it was immediately apparent something was wrong. The door was locked, yes, but from the inside. Someone was inside the apartment and we couldn’t get in!

Knocking and banging on the door from the inside out to us we could discern the voice of our landlady and her husband — yelling at us that they would not let us in, they were calling the police, what was ours was now theirs and they knew what we were up to!

What in the actual HELL was happening?! 

Remember, 1997. I’m in the middle of Moscow, Russia, where the KGB and the Mafia are interchanged for one another as seamlessly as tit for tat. This is the land where an American goes missing and no one blinks because they don’t even notice. 

Heart pounding, I plead through the door for her to please open, please talk with me, please explain what happened, why is she upset? What is her concern? Can we discuss this? 

No! The operator at the phone company called her, told her how frequently I’m plugging into “that computer thing” and “I know what you’re doing here! I know what you’re trying to do.” 

Dear god, what is she talking about?! 

“I have already called the police! They are on their way. You will be arrested. I am confiscating your computer.”

No discussion. No earlier call. No indication that this was coming. What is she afraid of? Accusing me of doing? Having me arrested for what?! 

My heart is pounding louder than my thoughts.

Can I just have my stuff? My suitcase? Keep the damn computer; it doesn’t belong to me anyway. I swear I’m only working. I’m only connecting with my office in the US. Are you worried we won’t pay the phone bill? Is that what this is about?! Are the police really necessary? 

Where can I go? 

And then rushing up the stairs are my co-worker American expat and Sergei, the Russian who works with him. They received a tip-off phone call that something was going down at our apartment, that we were being used as pawns in the larger Mafia-played game of business in Moscow. 

Quickly, go down and get in Sergei’s car. Leave the premises. Don’t worry about your things. Remove yourself before the police arrive. The rest will be taken care of. Go. NOW!

And heart-pounding crouched down from the back seat of the dark car I watch the police storm the building, a long pause of time, and then Sergei carrying my suitcases out and quietly placed in the trunk, and with a tap on the roof of the car the driver takes me away, only turning on his headlights when we are three streets gone.

Is Big Brother still watching? He definitely was in 1997.

I’m Back

Something just came over me. I am no longer in control, but someone or something is definitely in control. My senses tell me enough to know I’m not, oddly enough, out of control; I’m just no longer the one in charge. I immediately wonder if I ever have been in control and wander down the philosophical rabbit hole that does nothing but distract me from right now. Damn. Right now. I’m back. 

Assessing my situation and feeling the corners of my mouth turn up into a smile remembering the Borg episode from Star Trek. Not so funny now but still one of my favorites. Was that from the original series? Or the Next Generation? maybe one of the movies because those are so well done. Benedict Cumberbatch as Kahn was genius. His birthday was a couple of weeks ago — same day as Lori’s — and it’s funny that still pops up on my annual calendar from how many years ago did my daughter place it there? Ten? Shit. I’m back. I’m back.

Who taught me that technique? Was I in a training program for this very situation? Do I know what to do? Geez — what if I’m like Jason Bourne? OMG was that series based on real life events? Clearly they didn’t screen me too well because can you even imagine me as an assassin?! Laughing over here. That’s really funny. I mean — not real, right? I couldn’t even punch David in the face when he was wearing full head gear, taught me how to throw the punch and TOLD me to do it! I CRIED. Good grief. Kill someone on command? Not too likely. Laugh, love, hug on command — definitely my vibe. Shit. I’m back. I’m back. Again.

Get your surroundings. Get some information we can use here. Where is here? Who is talking to me? Do you hear voices? I mean I’m full-blown having a conversation here. Who are you?

Who are you?

You know what? It doesn’t matter right now. Let’s all quiet and calm down. Take some deep breaths. Focus on here. Right here. Breathe? I can’t!! I can’t breathe! Oh, wait, yes, yes I can. Just not easily or through my mouth, or maybe it’s my nose. Dear God, do I have a face?!

Yes, you have a face. What do you think someone just took your face? Now I’m laughing.

Well, wasn’t there a movie with a face swap? I don’t think I saw it but I remember the title had something to do with faces. I’m not convinced it can’t happen.

Face swapping — pretty sure that’s only on your phone. Remember when you face swapped with the Pope?! OMG Hilarious!

Yes! I used his image from the Pope Pop I bought at the Vatican souvenir shop! We laughed real tears at that one. And I’m back. 

Still don’t know anything in this moment other than I now have a hankering for some bruschetta — screams Italy, doesn’t it? I should make some; I’ve got all the ingredients: fresh basil, fresh tomatoes, olive oil. Bread. I need some decent crusty bread. I don’t think I can pick a favorite — oh, yes, yes I can. The tomato salad in Agerola. I know it wasn’t technically bruschetta, but close enough, right? Is my mouth watering? What is wrong with my mouth? Shiiit — seriously guys (are you guys?) something is wrong here. Very wrong. I don’t think I can talk. Are we not talking? I am so confused right now. I’m back. I’m back. 

But where am I? Who am I? I know who I am. Do I have a face? What happened to my mouth? It’s dripping. Something is dripping. Is it my mouth? Am I awake? Can anyone hear me? I don’t think anyone hears me. Am I alone? What is that pressure on my arm? Why is my arm being squeezed? Who is touching me? I don’t want to be touched. NO! Don’t touch me! NO! I’m back. I’m back. Be here now.

I hear you. What? I’m sorry, what? It’s all over? What’s over? What happened? Do you remember that episode of I Love Lucy where she drinks the vitameatavegimin? I love that episode. I read her biography last year. Lucy’s. Listened to it, actually. Her daughter narrates it and I didn’t laugh as much as I thought I would. I cried, actually. Very sad. It’s hard. Being famous. Getting what you want. Maybe? Right. I’m back. I’m back. 

I do love Lucy. I really do.

Oh, hi Mom. We’re going home now? But I can’t drive myself. I’m definitely not in control. What are these? My wisdom teeth? 

Pink Walls and The Partridge Family

Sweat drips off my face, my heart is pounding, and all I can think about is that 4th of July we spent together in New Mexico three years ago — wrapped together in the big red blanket from the trunk of my car watching the fireworks light up Albuquerque. Ha! I can never not start singing, “Point me . . . In the direction of Al-buh-ker-ke-e-e. . . I want to go ho-oh-ah-ome. I need to get ho-oh-ohm.” I love hearing your laugh melt into those beautiful tenor notes joining me by the “I need to get ho-oh-ohm” every single time.

Do you ever wonder about the Partridge Family? I mean really wonder about the impact that family and their bus had on popular culture? I only wonder about it sometimes because I like singing “Al-buh-ker-ke-e-e” and also because my sister had a crush on David Cassidy and a poster of him hung in our shared bedroom for at least a year. Last week I saw an image of a young Partridge Family era David Cassidy gracing a wall clock on a shelf in an antique shop. It made me smile.

Did I ever tell you about the time I took a bite out of my sister’s 45? Okay, this is definitely worth repeating. I was probably four or five years old and my sister had boy crushes on lots of teen dreams from the 70s, David Cassidy among them. Anyway, she had a collection of 45s and her own record player, which strikes me as odd only because she was so young. I mean, how old were you when you were noticeably experiencing crushes for the first time? I can’t remember even being aware of boys at the age of 9 but whatever. She definitely had her own records and posters hanging on the wall and I know because we shared a room — geez that bedroom was my everything. Did I tell you the walls were pink, like Pepto Bismal pink, but please whatever you do don’t ever give me Pepto Bismal because it makes me throw up, which I think is kind of the point of it, but honestly it’s so disgusting. Anyway, we had pink walls and pink gingham canopies with matching bedspreads and pillow shams and curtains on the windows. There wasn’t anything in that room that wasn’t touched by pink and I loved every bit of it.

So my sister had her records in a little record box with a push-button latch on the front and mostly I liked to push that button and spring open the latch and then click it shut and do it all over again because I didn’t care much for records. But once I was playing with the lock on the record box and opened the lid just to look at the 45s lined up shining black in a row, covered in their sleeves, black shiny side up for easy access. And it was shining up at me so I picked it up out of the box and turned it over and looked at the picture on the cover of the sleeve and the little record slid out of its envelope and into my little hands. And it was slick and smooth and the grooves of the record going round waaaanted to be touched and I was so excited just to hold it and hug it close to my chest because I was too little to play with records because I might scratch them.

I wasn’t wanting to scratch anything. But the biggest urge to TASTE overcame me and I lifted that 45 up like a sandwich to my mouth and closed my lips on either side of the record and took a bite. Into my mouth fell a little semi-circle the exact shape of my teeth’s circumference, and I promptly spit it into my hand and brushed it into the waste bin, smearing my own spit as I wiped my hands clean of any evidence of guilt. I placed the 45 back in its sleeve, and the sleeve back in the box, and pushed closed the box latch, and put the box back on her side of the room, and skipped out of our shared pink room, closing the door behind me, remembering only one thing: vinyl records do not taste as good as they look and if I could choose a poster for my pink wall it would have been of the Partridge Family Schoolbus.