Oleg had white teeth, but Natalia’s were golden.
He taught “navigation” at the Frunze; she, physics
at Public School 625. He said literature was “a drug,”
and she came shouting, red-faced from the kitchen.
Dima, twenty-two, drank vodka in the metro
on the way to morning class. He mocked the KGB
right there in the living room. I thought he would
cry when I gave him the carton of Marlboros.
Natalia began to look at me all the time, and Oleg
looked at her looking at me. At the celebration
of Women’s Day, their friends, whose daughter was
still too alive to mention, looked away from Natalia
when she looked at me. They insisted I sit in the
cushioned chair. Had they visited the U.S.? The men
looked embarrassed, they looked like boys
when they said they had seen San Diego
through a periscope.
Jay and Laura Mumble had
brought their children and their Mississippi vowels
to a place where the McDonald’s was full of Mafia.
I never saw them again after the airport. I don’t
remember ever smelling the sea. I was cold the whole
time. There was a kind of patience in everybody’s
unhappiness, in that transparent anxiety. I’ll bet
they’re all still waiting for the great change, still
glum and child-like, wrapped up against the cold,
pantlegs tucked properly into their admirable boots.
I had no head for its abstraction, the city’s design.
Half the time I couldn’t see it at all. I couldn’t think.
I was cold then colder. There wasn’t enough bourbon.
Natalia insisted I squeeze ketchup on my noodles
with their hints of beef. One night she gave me
a larger glass for the Stolichnaya, but she and Oleg
drank from the same footed thimble. In the morning,
the mercury outside the kitchen window: minus 13
in the pearly glow. The only picture I’m sure I saw
in the Winter Palace: Rembrandt: Abraham’s brutal hand
on the boy’s face, the head back, the white neck . . .