Red Ticket: The Goods
In which we finally figure out how I know Robin
Every weekend we serialize Red Ticket, Robin Whetstone’s memoir of her time in Moscow in the early ‘90s. Today, Delta finds Robin’s lost luggage, but this is Moscow, where even the simplest things like picking up a lost bag can get you killed, and then, after her professor tells her to stick garlic up her nose, she looks for a job, and you all finally get to learn how we know each other. If you need to catch up, go back and read chapters 1, 2-3, 4-5, 6, and 7.
Chapter 8. The Goods
by Robin Whetstone
By the next morning, my shame had faded. The yen for food with a satisfying mouth feel had been bred into me; it would take a while to get shed of the impulse to comfort-eat French fries. The important thing was not to relapse. I redoubled my efforts to find food.
The good news was, Delta had found my suitcase. If the food I’d packed was still inside it, I could eat that instead of McDonald’s. The bad news? The Delta office was two miles farther than the most distant metro stop, on a highway on the howling outskirts of the city. The only thing to do was hail a car, but Betsy was having none of it.
“No,” she said, “I’m not getting in some guy’s car.” We were standing in front of the metro directly below the Stalinist wedding-cake building where Betsy lived with Lars. This was about as downtown Moscow as you could get.
“Betsy,” I pulled the pistol Lars had given me out of my coat and waved it around. Pedestrians streamed by us, unconcerned. “I have a gun.”
“Don’t threaten me,” she said, misunderstanding. “I’m not hitchhiking. I’m not getting murdered. We’ll take the metro out to the end and walk from there.”
We picked our way through the slush on the edge of the highway, the gray cube of the Delta office – the only building out here – already a half mile behind us. I was carrying my coffee-table-sized suitcase and starting to think we’d make it back to the metro when the wind picked up, gusting directly at us as we struggled up the highway. The cars whizzed by, the gullies of air behind them catching up the nylon bag like a sail. All at once, it started to snow.
I could barely see as the flakes crashed into my face and collected in my eyelashes, driven by the wind. I pulled my scarf over my mouth and nose, then pulled it down again. “Let’s get off the highway!” I yelled to Betsy. She nodded, globs of snow crusting on her eyebrows. We half-slid with the suitcase down the highway embankment toward a smaller side road. This road was dirt, and lined with homemade garages: square after square of corrugated tin boxes, each housing a Lada or something like it. Muscovites lucky enough to own cars had to park them out here, in these rusty boxes way out on the edge of the city.
“You need a car to get to your car,” I thought. We walked down the road, away from the highway, the garages on either side of us disappearing under the snow as the blizzard grew stronger. Now that we were off the main highway, it’d be harder to find the tiny metro station located on some cross street somewhere a mile and half away. Maybe that direction there?
My suitcase was smeared with mud and ice from the slide down the embankment. I tried to protect it from more abuse by walking with it hugged to my chest, like it was my best suitcase friend ever. My body heat melted the ice caked on it, soaking the bag. I staggered with it in my arms as snow continued to pelt us. It was dark now, hard to see. The wind made standing still challenging. I put the suitcase down and grabbed the handle with both hands. I pulled, walking backward, dragging the bag down the dirt street. Thick new snow lay on the ground, and as I dragged the bag through it its edge acted like a scraper, scooping up the snow until I couldn’t go on. I dug the snow out from under the suitcase and tried again. The bag was even filthier and wetter now, and I was streaming with sweat under my long underwear as I pulled it a few more feet. My nose ran furiously, the snot immediately freezing into an icicle hanging off its tip. I let go of the suitcase and straightened up, my back popping. “This won’t work!” I shouted at Betsy.
“Just leave it!” Betsy yelled back.
I squatted down next to the bag and unzipped it. Snow piled up, obscuring the contents, but I wiped it away and dug out a long scarf. I closed the bag and took off my own scarf. I looped one scarf and then the other around the suitcase handle, slip-knot style, and held one set of scarf ends out to Betsy. After tying my own scarf ends into a harness across my chest, I laid the bag down flat on its back on top of the snow. “Let’s pull. Maybe it’ll be like a sled.”
It sort of worked. Betsy and I walked beside each other, bent into the wind. We pulled, not talking, concentrating on the road in front of us. After a while we turned onto a paved street. More shuttered garages, but with streetlights. A panel truck rumbled toward us, two men smoking in the lighted cab. The passenger rolled down the window. “I’m sorry it is so heavy for you!” he yelled, the truck spraying us with slush as it passed.
We walked for a long time, the streets and buildings becoming more substantial. The wind continued to howl, but now it was at our backs. A truck pulled up from behind us and paced our steps as the driver rolled down his window. “Devushki,” he said, “I want to burgle glurgle blahdski blah.”
“What?” I shouted. “What did he say?”
“He says he wants to buy the goods we are carrying,” Betsy yelled back.
“What? He doesn’t even know what they are!”
“OK, yes,” said Betsy to the man.
“No!” I screamed. “No you cannot buy our goods!”
He shrugged and trundled off. “Why don’t any of these people offer us a ride?” I shouted at no one. “What is wrong with everybody? It’s a fucking blizzard!”
“That truck turned right,” said Betsy. “That’s probably where the metro’s at.” She was right.
Seven hours after we’d set out, I stood in my dorm room, staring at the battered, empty bag like it was a gazelle I’d just eaten. I’d put on every piece of clothing in my suitcase and eaten a spoonful of peanut butter, but I still could not stop shaking. I got in bed and lay there, my head pounding. Eventually, I slept. I dreamed there was a big roach on the Creamsicle-orange wallpaper in my room, up by the corner where I couldn’t reach. I had to keep my eye on him. When I woke up, I had a fever.
Chapter 9. Home Remedies
I missed four days of school. My first day back, Galina Petrovna was waiting for me in the dark classroom with a sack full of medicine.
“Cut this into small pieces and stick them in your nose,” said Galina, pulling a green onion out of her bag. “Keep them there until the burning stops, then take them out and replace them with this,” (she held up a large head of garlic). “You should do this even when you are well. It will keep you from getting sick.
“Then, take this,” she pulled out an evil-looking radish, the dirt still clinging to its long roots, “and grind it up until you have a paste. Rub the paste on your chest, but only leave it there for a little while. And whatever you do, do not get it in your mouth. It will burn you.”
Galina took out a bag of…cornstarch? Cocaine? “Pour some of this into a pair of thick wool socks. Put the socks on and walk around. You will feel better, but you may have problems going to the bathroom.”
I took the bag from her and sniffed it. It smelled like washing powder. I gave Galina a look. “I put the cloves in my nose and the radish on my chest and the soap in my socks.”
“Yes, exactly. Every Russian uses remedies like these. We always have, but especially now. Medicine is scarce. And who can afford a doctor? Listen,” she said, patting me, “Take my advice and you will be well in a week. Or visit a doctor, and you will be well in seven days.”
When I got back to my dorm room, I sat down at my desk and opened my spiral notebook.
I’d been here for about 21 days, and I’d been assaulted, poisoned by cheese, and had caught the flu. I’d eaten very little. It had been the most terrifying, least comfortable three weeks of my life. But that was Russia for you: the land of superlatives. The biggest prison camps. The best writers. This was one of the main reasons I’d come here. I loved knowing that things were the most whatever they’d ever been, instead of just blandly passable. I loved how things here were so extreme, so darkly funny, and so tilted. It was just like a Bulgakov novel. But there was no need to make any of it up. All you had to do was write it down.
I sat there scribbling everything Galina Petrovna had said to me in class onto the pages of my second spiral notebook. I enjoyed writing it down, trying to conjure the flavor of how my teacher talked. It distracted me from thinking about other things, like Hussein. His room was now occupied by two members of a Norwegian basketball team that had moved onto the hall. I felt safer now, surrounded by these giant, speedy men. But what about Hussein?
I was not about to go to the police. The collapse of Communism left a great, lawless vacuum in the country that was filling up fast with gangsters and oligarchs. The Moscow police were notoriously corrupt, and at best they’d see me, a lone American girl, as an easy source of revenue. So was I going to singlehandedly launch a campaign against the Azeri mafia in order to avenge Hussein? Go around asking nosy questions about the men who had attacked me? I didn’t know what to do so I didn’t do anything, except decide that I had to get out of the dorms as soon as I could. And to do that, I’d have to find a job. I was 22 and had a brand-new degree in Russian and another one in religion. No one in college ever talked to me about what kind of job I’d get after I graduated. I think it made it them too sad.
“Where could I find a job?” I wondered. I looked around my room. Spiral notebooks, an ashtray. A magazine called the Moscow Guardian, given to me yesterday by one of my neighbors. It was an English-language magazine written mainly for Westerners and New Russians, and the people who wrote it were paying attention. They understood what living here was like. Plus, it had classifieds. I looked at them and saw ads for petroleum marketers and attractive secretaries. I was neither of those. There was also a big ad that said “Writer Wanted.” The Moscow Guardian was looking for a writer.
“You could do that,” I thought. “If you were a writer.”
I wasn’t a writer. I was just someone who wrote stuff down. There was a difference. Writers carried little notebooks with them everywhere, and kept a daily journal, something I was too undisciplined to do. Writers had credentials, and publication records. Ascots. But not me. I had chosen a different path. I’d chosen Russian because I’d grown up during the Cold War and wanted to understand the country that shadowed my childhood like a mushroom-shaped cloud. I wanted to know the people who were capable of the sacrifices I’d read about in the history of World War II. And I wanted to study Dostoevsky, because I loved him.
“That sounds great,” I thought, “but it’s mainly bullshit.” I had chosen Russian because I had almost failed high school French, which would have kept me from graduating. I was terrified of my university’s language requirement. I was not going to be able to learn a language. I was too lazy to do it. I’d fail, and then I’d feel like a fuck-up, especially if I took something that was supposed to be easy, like Spanish.
“But what if I took something hard and failed?” I thought. “Everyone would be like, ‘of course you failed. It was hard.’”
Studying Russian had the added benefit of immediately conferring gravitas upon me. I didn’t have to worry about whether or not I had any depth, or whether I was interesting. I had the stories to prove it. I laid the magazine aside. Underneath it was my spiral notebook, the last of the eight pages I’d written about Galina’s home remedies.
“Why not,” I thought. I picked up the magazine again and went downstairs.
“This is Jason Stanford,” said the voice on the other end of the line.
“My name is Robin,” I said. “And I’m calling about your ad for writers. I have a story that I have written. Maybe I could come in and show it to you.”
“Uh, well,” said Jason, “Why don’t you come in and bring your resume?”
“Oh. I don’t have a resume.” I worked part-time hourly jobs in college, ones you found in the newspaper. Resumes were for people who could tolerate ironing.
There was a silence on the other end of the phone. Then Jason said, “OK then. Just write down what you’ve done on a piece of paper and bring that in.”
We scheduled a meeting and I hung up the phone. I was sick with hope and excitement. This opportunity was like the sun. It would burn me up if I looked directly at it. I had to move fast. I rushed back upstairs to make a cup of tea and get to work on my story. On the way home from school, I’d bought a bag of Georgian tea from the perpetual line of old ladies standing in front of the metro, selling whatever they had. This would be perfect. I’d sit in my room in Moscow and drink strong tea and work on my story and prepare for my interview for a job as a writer at the Moscow Guardian. This was exactly what I’d hoped my life would be like.
I came back from the kitchen, carrying the pot full of boiling water. The pot was meant for camping, with collapsible wire handles. I tried to hold it steady on my left arm as I unlocked my outside door, but one of the handles folded in and the pot dropped to the side, spilling steaming water all over my left wrist. The synthetic long underwear I was wearing wicked all the water into the cuff, concentrating it in a band around my wrist. I shrieked and yanked at the sleeve on my left arm, instinctively trying to get the heat off of me. Four or five layers of skin peeled off my wrist and rode up with the sleeve, gummed to the fabric. I couldn’t believe I was seeing this; couldn’t believe that I was the person it was happening to. The skin on my wrist came off like a sock. It left a 2-inch wide bracelet of raw red flesh around my inner wrist. I looked at it and, instead of feeling pain, was fascinated to see that the violently red skin had perfect little white circles dotted all over it, where the pores used to be. These little white circles began to overflow with an amber liquid that did not harden, but rolled down my arm, dripping off my elbow in sticky rivulets. Then the air hit the skin.
I stood in the middle of my room, holding my left arm right below the elbow and screaming. My head was full of flapping black birds. What have I done what have I done what have I done? The thoughts receded to a faraway static. I could see myself standing there, clutching my arm. I walked over to my desk and lit a cigarette, sat down on the bed. It felt cool, like I was sitting on a breezy porch.
“You are in shock,” I told myself. I was grateful.
After a while, I got up and walked into the hall and banged on my neighbors’ door. The door opened and three girls my own age looked out at me. They were Americans, here on a school trip. There had to be an advisor with them, some actual adult. Maybe we could all work together to solve this terrible problem. I showed them my wrist and they recoiled. “Oh my God, go to the hospital,” said one of the girls.
I went back to my room and lit another cigarette. I could not go to the hospital. Health care in Russia had collapsed along with everything else, and the fastest way to die was to go to a hospital. But this was a third-degree burn, for sure. A serious injury. If it got infected it could kill me dead as any hospital. The fingers of my left hand were beginning to curl down into a fist, pulled tight by the yellow cords of skin bunched around my wrist. The wound showed no signs of scabbing over. How would I function in this filthy blizzard of a city? How would I put on my coat, tie my boots? This was beyond what Galina and her bag of onions could fix. I had no idea what to do.
Trying not to think about it, I looked in my suitcase among the jeans and long underwear for something that would pass for an interview suit.
If you’re enjoying Robin’s Moscow memoir, share it. Part of the reason I’m serializing it is to help her build the audience she deserves. (The other part of the reason is that I want you to have something fun to look forward to every weekend.)
Read the next chapter here, and subscribe so you don’t miss any future chapters.
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How we’re getting through this
Making dulce de leche
What I’m reading
College Reaction: “As colleges mull re-opening, some will stick to distance learning”
Harvard Business Review: “What Good Business Looks Like”
Institute for Public Relations: “A Pandemic Shift: America’s Return to Depression-Era Values”
Kung Fu Monkey: “Lunch Discussions #145: The Crazification Factor”
NYT: “Businesses Chafing Under Covid-19 Lockdowns Turn to Armed Defiance”
The New Yorker: “The Power of Comedy”
The News & Observer: “US man disguised as a janitor tries sneaking into Germany to see girlfriend, cops say”
The Onion: “What To Know About The Killing Of Ahmaud Arbery”
Reuters: “Russia deploying coronavirus disinformation to sow panic in West, EU document says”
Vox: “It’s time to take UFOs seriously. Seriously.”
Montezuma could’ve prepared a lot better for Cortes than he did, had he only known Cortes was coming.
Vulture: “An Oral History of Center Stage. How 24 pairs of leather pants, a tearaway tutu, and red pointe shoes made for a generation’s greatest dance movie.”
WSJ: “Should You Wear a Mask When Exercising Outdoors?”
Got some reading suggestions? Post them in the comments section, and I might include them in the next newsletter. Have a book to promote? Let me know in the comments or email me.
What I’m watching
Jon Oliver went postal.
I highly recommend going down a Steve Martin rabbit hole on You Tube. In this 1973 Tonight Show appearance, Martin does comedy for dogs. Nervy stuff to do on live TV.
Got suggestions? Post them in the comments section, and I might include them in the next newsletter.
What I’m listening to
As we’re opening up the economy with the near certainty that it will cause unnecessary death and illness, I give you the creepy and groovy “Money Is The One True God” by Blake Mills.
Got suggestions? Post them in the comments section, and I might include them in the next newsletter.
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