Strolling through an empty lobby in Beachwood the other day, I walked into a cloud of perfume. It time-machined me back to Dasha’s apartment, outside Moscow, 1992.
With her mane of curly off-blonde hair, her smart blouse buttoned to the neck, her lips full yet prim, Dasha coaxed me each morning to conjugate and decline her country’s enigmatic language. She was a mystery teaching a mystery.
Just out of college, I’d come to Russia on a fellowship to study poetry. Although I’d studied Russian for four years, when I landed in Moscow, it was as if I’d been struck in the head and couldn’t say the simplest things. It didn’t help that the country seemed to be coming apart after years of Soviet neglect. No one seemed able to explain what was happening, even in their native tongue.
It was also nearly impossible to make a phone call home to the States. I’d have to dial over and over, sometimes for an hour, just to get a weak connection.
In the first session, I remember trying to say to Dasha, “I miss my friends.” But she spoke no English, so I tried to describe it in the words I had.
She wrote down a sentence for me: Мне не хватает друзей.
I repeated it back to her.
I realized only after I’d left that her phrase meant: “I don’t have enough friends here.”
So often, I felt like a child trapped in a man’s body, unable to communicate the roil of my head and heart, living so far from home, knowing no one here.
Dasha had a liquid precision. For three months, she’d greet me in her living room, offer me tea and commence proving how little I knew.
She over-enunciated the way someone does when they’re speaking to something they believe is stupid or deaf.
I kept a running tally of words and phrases that I’d learned while trying to make sense of this country: To be worried. To get lost. To injure. To bother, disturb. Everything is new.
We read aloud The Hero of Our Time, about a brash officer named Pechorin, who treats women as conquests and life as nihilistic. I thought he was a jerk, but I read it because Dasha wanted to. Pechorin dies, but he had it coming to him. Live like a jerk, die like a jerk.
Every other day, we made our trade: I’d give her some American bucks, and she’d give me some Russian words. In the process, I’d leave smelling like perfume and tea, a few more words on my tongue. It was like we were ending the Cold War, one tea at a time.
Russia had seemed like a painting at first, a vivid Van Gogh with its shaggy fields and brightly scarved babushkas, its frank wildness and battered surfaces. But you can’t live inside a painting, and paintings leave the nose indifferent.
Here, women were clouded in perfume, men fumed in cigarettes. Roads smelled of diesel and fresh mud. Toilets smelled of lavender and crap. Trains and buses steamed in the odor of people who toil and worry and wear unwashed clothes, the reek of metabolized alcohol.
Russia also smelled like kitchens of dill and vinaigrette and the slight sour of kefir. And when May would come, after the brutal winter, Russia smelled like lilacs, that fugitive freshness that tickles your nose when you pass them in a yard.
The last time Dasha and I met, I slumped inside her apartment, bringing in the sudden November cold, like Pechorin with a conscience.
“Dasha,” I said, not knowing how to say it, though I knew the words. I knew how much the extra money meant to her, in a time when the Russian ruble was losing its value by the day. “I’m ready to start interviewing poets and going to poetry readings. I need to move into the city.”
She turned away, wordless.
When she finally turned back, she began chattering such complex phrases that I was lost in her wake. Was it about the money or would she actually miss me?
I couldn’t tell. It was the most vexing part of living in Russia as an American — I never knew if people wanted to befriend me only because I was American. I became suspicious of everyone’s intentions, as if they saw dollar signs emanating from my American boots, my American jeans, my American Speed Stick smell.
I can still see her face shrouded in thought, how she gathered herself, smiled in the wan way people smile when they are in pain.
When we look back at our lives, they’re littered with chance acquaintances, people whose lives have briefly and poignantly crossed our own. What we know of them is the briefest glimpse, the curtained foyer of a many-roomed mansion.
I have no pictures to prove she existed, but in that lobby, 5,000 miles from Moscow, it was if she had just passed through. I suddenly wondered if she’d felt about me the way I’d suddenly felt about her — a misty melancholy, a longing to know a life different from your own, close enough to smell.