A bearded, baby-faced twenty-one-year-old who studied spiritual seminary and who wanted to talk about politics; a wise girl with bad complexion who giggled every time one of us tried to move; an older bald man in taxi-station white-collar clothes; a round-faced, cute girl whose light-brown body sweated in an ivory dress; and a tired foreigner with his bags between his knees; all strangers; sat very, very close. We rode in a "marshutka", a van or mini-van with seats for at least twelve paying passengers.
June 11th. A hot day, and I was in Russia. Hooray!
Someone asked the foreigner (me), where he was from. I said, America. The wise-cracking bald man commented, "Rabotal protiv Soyuz." (He worked against the Union.)
He later joked that I was a millionaire. The wise girl said, "Milionar v marshutke!" (As if a millionaire would be in a marshutka!) and giggled.
But, our two-hour ride was a jolly one. I felt a little overmatched, speaking and joking in Russian, while pinned up against the window, but these were good people, so I spoke to the student about literature, and pretended to dance when Russian pop music that everyone hated played. During our two-hour ride, the infamous "militsia" (police) stopped us two times and asked to see some of our documents (including mine). They were apparently looking for a villain.
In Staryy Oskol, we said, "Do svodaniya." On flat land between colossal, gray and worn apartment buildings, I walked to Yana's family's home.
Thank, thank the empty, nonexistent sky for Yana! My shoes were soaked from a heavy rain, my socks blue, the palms of my feet so soggy I thought I might have gangrene, my clothes dirty, and my body out-traveled. Her apartment was comfortable, by Russian terms or tent-sleeper terms.
Her father, Oleg, was a friend-seeking man and a good cook. He was a nice, bald man who felt comfortable when he was drinking a bit. His tantalizing soup was tomato-paste-flavored yet watery, with bits of beef and vegetables, and you added sour cream, black olives, and lemon to it. He cooked beef stroganoff, a thick sweet stew invented when Russian soldiers in France demanded to eat quickly. We also ate pancakes, sweet biscuits, and biscuits with sweet-cream fillings - made by Yana's mom, Nadia - all eaten with "varenie" (jam).
Light-eater Yana, at age fifteen, was small and brown-haired with a head capable of moving very quickly while the rest of her body didn't flinch. She'd been an extremely talented English student of mine before.
Her happy, well-bred friends included Elina. Blond Elina had toy-blue eyes that squeezed like an orange when she laughed, baby-fat cheeks, and an eye-fluttering way of saying "Yes!" or "Konechno!" (Of course!) that made her seem as loving as a squeaky-toy.
She was mature. She sat dignified close to me when we met and asked if I was married. She said another time, "Lyublyu lyubov." (I love love.) One evening, she wore high heels, light-colored jeans with a tear above her knee, and a body-hugging hot-pink blouse, and she looked so worshipably womanly that I engaged her in the local trend of interlocking arms while we walked around the city - which was splendid.
Another friend was Stas, a stylishly-dressed, handsome-eyed boy. He spoke with the energy and curiosity of a boy eager for the more-than-mundane.
He and his male classmates played "kucha" (pile), a game in which everyone jumps on one person - sometimes breaking desks. Other times during class, one boy whispers "sisky" (boobs) quietly. A chain-reaction begins, and people carefully say, "sisky" louder and louder, until eventually someone screams it and the teacher gets mad.
Stas asked me, how do you get a girl to like you? Buy her chocolates? I said to speak openly, to tell her you feel good next to her. I said it also helps to engage touching, to wrestle, to dance, to flirt. To evidence this, I abruptly poked Elina twice in the arm, which got her giggling and squeezing her eyes and caused Stas to say, "That looked funny when you did that."
We swam and played sports by a creek, went to Elina's great-grandparents' turquoise country home to drink fresh milk, and froze watching a hockey game. I gifted Yana a "Winnie the Pooh" book to read in English. I also really liked Yana's father, Oleg, with whom I stayed up talking and listening to music until Nadia made him go to bed.
Before I left Staryy Oskol, the city of 250,000 I'd lived in for two months last year, I went to Prospekt Lenina street. Near this colorful street-corner of town, I knocked on black-haired Elina's door.
Her mom answered. She invited me into the little, dank apartment.
Long-black-haired Elina had been one of the two girls with whom I'd done almost everything last year. These girls were in Belgium now. Over tea, Elina's mom told that Elina isn't succeeding in Belgium and plans on coming home. She said Elina speaks before she thinks. She said Elina, who doesn't like to be alone, had felt sad about me being alone in Staryy Oskol. And Elina's ex-boyfriend in Russia, Mancho, was threatening her and had punched her in the face.
I felt sad that Elina wasn't succeeding and I couldn't help her.
But, I felt happy that Elina's mom considered me a friend. Elina's and my relationship had included love, at the time in defiance of her monogamy with Mancho, and I was happy to see that such an untraditional relationship could be viewed in a good light in a traditional society.
I also felt happy Mancho hadn't punched me in the face.
I left photo's for Elina and got her address so I could write her.
The other girl from last year, cautious-speaking Nadezda, was doing just fine. She'd thanked me for my travel inspiration once she'd reached Belgium. We came a long way together.
- Modern Oddyseus
Much thanks to Yana, Nadia, & Oleg for the place to visit!