The Tune of Soviet Tuesdays
Here we go again. Those four words were the only form of inner dialogue I had with myself that evening as I gathered my things and prepared to walk out the door. They repeated in my head, bouncing off the walls of my mind. I had just gotten home from school and with only enough time to scarf down a yoghurt and drink a small juice glass filled with murky tap water; I didn’t even bother fully undressing my winter layers. Wrapped in swaddles of fabric, I looked in the mirror to see if I was bundled up enough. Was my neck showing? God forbid a centimeter of my pale skin is exposed to the -28 degree Celsius icy wind that would ensue. I didn’t want to get yelled at by an old woman on my walk to the metro, because, well everybody knows that “you’ll get sick if your neck isn’t covered.”
I looked in the mirror one last time before zipping up my boots. Here, you have to look your best when you walk out the door, even if you’re going to a gas station, to the supermarket, or in my case, across the city to the hospital for physical therapy. I was dealing with “extreme curvature of the spine” and the doctors wanted to make sure I would be ready for surgery that summer. I usually listened to country music while getting ready for this heinous evening: George Strait, Alan Jackson, and of course, Johnny Cash, always brought me to my “happy place,” reminding me of childhood car rides with my Dad.
I fastened my black Mink up to my neck and adjusted my vibrant floral scarf to cover my mouth so that my strawberry yoghurt breath would be a source of warmth for my nose beneath the hand-made fabrics. I slipped on my gloves and pulled up my hood. At least I felt like a snow princess.
Maybe it’s because I’d had enough of standing in the sweltering heat of all my layers in my stale apartment, but although I dreaded how I would spend my evening, I couldn’t wait to step outside and enjoy the journey there. I visualised my walk to the metro, the ride through the tunnels, and expedition to the hospital with longing in this foreign and native city; a place where I feel both completely at home and completely alien. It makes me feel tough, so miserable, and dizzyingly happy.
As I felt the sweat beads build on my forehead, I stepped outside, relieved of the heat only for a brief moment before the cold bit my skin from head to toe. My stomach felt empty and my head heavy but I knew what I had to do. It was a Tuesday night. These Tuesdays were inescapable.
But they are different than the other 300 or so I’d had for the past several years of my life. This Tuesday did not mean standing in the guest room of my apartment playing the violin for 2 hours with him. Today I would not go to sleep with an aching neck or marks on my chin. The little callouses would not appear on my left pointer finger. My nostrils would not be filled with the smell of rosin or the stale watermelon gum that he would chew as he would scold me in Russian for missing an entire measure, or simply allowing my bow to glide onto the wrong note.
I missed those Tuesdays. I wished for that excitement when he pulled out an old—but new for me—dusty book from his briefcase. Books belonging to the Soviet orchestra library: 1962 was faintly printed on the inside front cover of one. I handled them with such care, turning each page only with the tips of my curious fingers. Tchaikovsky, Vivaldi…my favorites. Pages taped together at the flimsy spine of the thing. Ah yes. Spine. That thought brought me back to reality.
The sound of my boots on the compacted powder snow beneath my feet makes a most irritating, squeaky noise. This crunch after crunch; step after step is worse than hearing someone’s shoes squawking while they dribble up and down a basketball court. My dad always told me that you know it’s below freezing outside if your steps make this sound. I think I would be able to tell without this ‘did you know’ fact, simply by the frozen hairs in my nose and the baby icicles on my eyelashes. Not to mention my cracked knuckles with tiny pieces of flaky white skin sticking to the insides of my black gloves.
I walk across a busy street and see the mush of fresh powder, now turned black from the pollution: It looks like scoops of cookies ‘n’ cream I used to eat at my grandmother’s house. Shiny golden church domes are frosted over, turned silvery white with a layer of fresh snow atop of them. Even God’s bright cathedral, although standing strong on the street corner, looks beaten down by the ice. Why is it, that this is the cold I like? The place I hate to love only brings a constant slew of extremes, including the numbness from head to toe where I can actually feel the moisture escaping my breath.
It feels good. I like that each toe is beginning to tingle, slowly losing feeling, one by one, ironically creating a burning sensation. Would I rather be burned alive, or slowly die of frostbite? It’s all the same, isn’t it? My thoughts wander as I emanate enough strength to fling my arms and chest forward, pushing the metal and glass door open and smack the leg of a middle-aged man in the process. He doesn’t even flinch. It is rush hour on the Metro, why would it be anything less than normal to use any bodily appendage to push others out of the way? In fact, if I hadn’t so matter-of-factly heaved the door open, I would have gotten sarcastically yelled at for taking my sweet time. God, I love this place.
It smells like piss. My mother would tell me I sound like a trucker if I described such a smell, but to be fair, it doesn’t smell like pee, it smells like piss. And sawdust. And burnt rubber. And sweat. And the digested particles of old alcohol seeping through someone’s pores: not even the smell of some drunk guy, but actually the smell of collective drunkenness. If that could even be put into a smell, I would definitely pair this with the Metro stench.
I push through the crowds and reach a standstill. Well not really. Even though there is no space, people aren’t standing still. We all waddle collectively, switching from left to right legs, looking like a herd of penguins in the arctic, inching closer and closer to the top of the never-ending escalator. I step on hastily. As I step off I lose myself in the crowd and glide to the platform. This is my favorite station. The walls are painted a bright yellow and I look up to the ceiling, starting the game I like to play called ‘look for as many Soviet symbols as you can find.’ It isn’t hard at this station where a mosaic mural of Lenin’s face peers at me over my left shoulder, under a large red star with the words ‘all power to the Soviets—1905’ written in tiles. Each stop on this line looks different, like an imperial museum, with swirled marble floors, pillars and chandeliers.
People are scrambling like ants on a piece of food someone has left under a picnic table. My train is already waiting for me. Perfect. I close my eyes and blindly walk forward, knowing I will have to push with all my strength to fit my body inside the train. SMACK. The doors slam together just as I manage to miraculously find a spot. Taking a seat, I suspiciously eye those around me to see who I’m sharing this car with. An elderly woman sits next to me and I scoot to make room for her. She eyes me and puts the sack she’s carrying onto her lap. Maybe she’s going to pick up her pension, or maybe a loaf of bread for her and her abusive husband… Nah, her husband is probably dead by now.
The ground below my dangling feet looks sticky. Mud and little, wet puddles are scattered about the train. I look around me and see everyone’s eyes staring ahead with persistent frowns. I feel my lips and forehead naturally taking the same form. I am just one in a crowd of many. To my left I see a girl with metallic platinum blonde hair, her dark roots exposed. Hah! Funny how the stereotype of Russian girls is blonde hair and blue eyes when really the only blondes I know are fake ones. Skin through opaque tights is exposed, and shiny pink lipstick glosses over her plush mouth. I can almost see the cloud of perfume masking stale cigarette smoke lingering above her. She takes a step and I can see the crisp red bottom of her Christian Louboutin stiletto boots. I wonder where her driver is tonight and why she’s taking public transportation like the rest of us ‘peasants.’
A young man asks me what the next stop is and I politely answer, with one headphone still in my left ear. No one stares at me as a stranger to their world. Yes! I have fooled them all. They think I’m one of them. Funny how my sealed mouth holds such a deep secret behind my chapped lips. I close my eyes and allow Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture to echo through my ears; through my mind until I reach my destination. I mouth along to the woman’s voice on the intercom, to the tune of familiar words I’ve heard a million times: ‘be careful…the doors are closing, next stop….’