The following is the first chapter of a young adult novel I am in the process of writing. The story takes place in both modern day Russia and war torn Soviet Stalingrad in 1941. My book is about a college student from Moscow named Polina who is forced to leave the ‘happening’ capital city to live with her Great Aunt Rosa in Volgograd due to an unpleasant combination of peat fires and asthma. While in Volgograd, she meets a boy who inadvertently shows her the city’s charms, teaches her photography and shows her a depth of self she hadn’t known before. Through her Aunt Rosa’s memories and reflections, she also comes to terms with her Russian heritage and acquires a new pride in her family history.
Incorporated in the book will be photos presumably taken by Polina of modern day Volgograd and sketches which were done by Rosa’s German boyfriend during the Battle of Stalingrad. The artwork will be my own.
In this first excerpt, Polina regretfully is en route to Volgograd from Moscow to live with her Aunt Rosa.
Chapter One: Train Scene
1 liter of coke
makeup set (lip gloss, lipstick, eyeliner, mascara, eye shadow, blush, foundation, etc.)
3 pairs of aviators
Ipod and dock
electric blue stilettoes
pink satin pumps
white leather knee high boots
navy blue lace tank top
crimson red jeggings
pink lace pushup bra
low-cut tight lavender halter-top
plaid mini skirt
black pencil skirt
white washed short shorts
leather jacket (the fake one)
suede shoulder bag
I swear, the best part of writing is describing my clothes! All this describing though, it makes me really wonder why I brought so much!...?
One manicured hand holds the list, and the other rests casually on the pullout handle of my suitcase. My eyes scan the other people on the platform. They are all waiting for the same train, and any one of them could be bunking with me. Sounds dramatic, but everyone in their right mind knows a bunkmate can make or break a trip, and in this case it looks to me like I should expect the worst. Any fantasy of bunking with a hot American dude vanishes instantly as I take in the people around me. An old baba stands a few yards away from me. Her skin is loose and weathered. Years of sun have given her wrinkled skin an unreal-looking leathery texture that is a deep brown color. Despite the heat, she wears a large jacket; obviously hiding more unneeded layers of wool and scarves underneath. Wrapped around her head is one of those gaudy flower-covered scarfs that Russian babas so love to wear. I can’t help but think of what American babas wear. They probably all wear fashionable clothes, perfectly tailored to suit their young-looking figures. They must be so different than our Russian babas, so much more understanding and supportive of modern culture. If only the old geysers and babas of Russia could just accept that the world is no longer the one they grew up in, and that they need to MOVE ON. They’re all so obsessed with their “perfect communist world”, that they haven’t taken the time to look around and realize that it’s gone, and the world is moving forward without them. Whatever. It’s their own fault. I just hope I don’t have to bunk with one of them, and hear about how great Stalin was all night.
I glance at my wrist and, to my embarrassment, remember that I no longer wear watches. Ever since Apple came out with the Iphone, it is incredibly old-school not to mention a huge fashion crime to be caught wearing a watch. Before the Iphone, cellphones had already started overpowering watches, but the introduction of the Iphone just sealed the deal. I don’t wanna sound like a total loser but I kinda miss watches. That is, I miss all the hard earned money I spent on fancy watches. I blink hard and shake my head. What am I SAYING? I sound just like an old Russian communist, all the ones standing standing around must be rubbing off on me. Disgusting.
I wait restlessly for any sound that might be an approaching train. I shift my weight from hip to hip. All I want is to get on this stupid train and get this whole waste-of-time-trip over with. I stare ahead indifferently. Years seems to pass before I finally hear the screeching noise and increase in chatter that can only belong to an approaching train. The huge moving mass of metal finally screeches to a stop before me. Doors open. People stream out, anxious to go explore the city I live in. I envy them with every bone in my body. What I wouldn’t give to be one of them right now; arriving in Moscow instead of leaving it. I give the young man at the door my ticket. Few words pass between us. He returns the ticket. I board the train.
I look both ways down the narrow corridor. People are spilling in from every doorway I can see. I turn left and start making my way to what will be my world for the next 40 hours. As people shove by me from all directions, I am suddenly overwhelmed by the many smells that surround me. They are everywhere. Filling my lungs and clogging my nose. A middle-age and slightly over-weight lady squeezes past me and in return leaves the lingering scent of her nauseating perfume. A rough-looking old man with an unshaven face and dirty clothes yells at me to step aside. His breath carries evidence of decades of cigarettes and vodka. Ah, cigarettes and vodka. A timeless recipe for Russian men. Whether he is 18 years old or 81 years old, if he is a Russian man, he will undoubtedly carry with him the stench of cigarettes and vodka. This is a fact. For most Russian men, you can add leather jacket into the mix as well. The equation looks something like this: vodka+cigarettes+leather=Typical Russian Male. It seems strange and even sexist to be able to label all Russian men at once, but this equation applies to everyone. I have yet to meet a man that does not fit this description. And there you have it; another problem with this dead-end country. Here, just about everyone fits the description they are given. In America, everyone is different and interesting. Here, your just part of one big equation that, in the end, equals FAILURE.
flour+vinegar+black-tea=Russian Babushka (Grandmother/old woman)
I realize how much I already know about every person that shoves past me in that narrow corridor. An old woman about half my size bumps into me. From what I can see of it, her hair is pure white and extremely thin. Her lips are surrounded by those typical Russian wrinkles that, thanks to plastic surgeons, I will never have. She wears a rag for a headscarf, and carries a plastic bag in place of a purse. I can deduce, just from that one quick glance, that this woman lives in a tiny, scummy apartment in Volgograd with her daughter and five grandkids. Her sad looking eyes seem to confirm this as she looks up at me scornfully.
The halls are quickly clearing out as people pile into the tiny bunks on the left side of the train. With each room that I pass by, I dive in and out of worlds. I pass a room with two men. They are laughing at some joke, all the while coughing up smoke, their eyes watering. Only one door over, I briefly enter the world of a distressed single mother, trying with all her might just to keep it together. She is wearing an outfit similar to mine and she looks barely older than me, but it is plain to see that she is just a wanna-be. Her makeup is messy and rushed, and a roll of post-baby fat peeks out from under her shirt and spills over her tight jeans. Stretch marks scar what I can see of her flabby stomach. Cute shirt. Pretty ordinary skinny jeans, but the studded heels look good with them. A baby rests on her hip as a little girl tugs on her shirt from the other side. She is a mother now. God, this could have been me. This could still be me. The weight of it all comes down on me like a bad hangover. I look up so that I am eye level with the girl who looks like she could even be younger than me. For a split second we lock eyes. A shiver runs up my spine.
Poorgirl. Her parenting knowledge is limited, and my guess is that her desire to be a parent is even less. regret+unpreparedness+too-young=Distressed Teenage Mother. Another recipe. Not a smell recipe however, a catastrophe recipe by which mothers like mine are created.
I try to get the heck out of there as fast as I can. As I do so, I let my heels click extra loud to try to drain out the unsettling noise of the single mother yelling at her crying children. Fewer and fewer people shove past me. We must be mere minutes away from departure. I panic. Once this train starts moving, I am headed straight to Volgograd. Unless of course I get off at the next stop, but the thing about the “cities” on this road is that there is a reason people are leaving them. A voice comes on over the loud speaker.
“Two minutes until departure.” The announcer sounds just about as “thrilled” to go to Volgograd as I am. Of course some of these announcer’s voices are so monotone that they
actually start to sound like bitter sarcasm after a while. Andrei does the best metro announcer impersonation I’ve ever seen. No really, it’s SICK. All of his impersonations are sick. I tell him we could move to Hollywood and he could become an actor. He could get us both famous and rich and then we could party all night without even thinking about getting up for work or classes in the morning. Only problem is, he only does impersonations when he’s really drunk, so he’d probably have to be SUPER drunk to get up the guts to do an audition.
“One minute until departure.” Shoot! I bet if I could just find an end to this corridor I could get off the train and stay in my beloved Moscow; despite the consequences. I am alone in this endless corridor. Doors shut as I walk by. Everyone is in their rooms and ready for departure. Once again I am forced to pick up the pace. I can see what must be a passage between train cars and a door back onto the platform. I am almost there, and my pace has become a run. I am not more than eight meters away when the left wheel of my suitcase gets caught on a large crease on the carpeted floor. The handle of the suitcase is yanked out of my hand as I stagger forward, the momentum I had just gained forcing me into the ground. How embarrassing. I look around nervously to see if anyone saw me.
“We will soon depart Moscow. Doors are now closing. Final destination: Volgograd.” NO!!!! I hear the main doors--my last connection to Moscow-- shut just meters in front of me. Devastation at it’s finest. I can’t help but ball up one angry fist and smash it into the ground that I sit on. What a wreck this all is. What a horrible, awful, disgusting, depressing, stupid day this has been! Why am I leaving? Why? I know the REASON, but, truth is; I would rather stay in smoke-clogged Moscow and die a happy congested, coughing death than die of homesickness out it dead-end Volgograd. The ironic thing is that smoke will end up killing me eventually anyway so, WHY NOT NOW? God, I’m just so frustrated. We all lose it sometimes, I’m sure even American’s have their moments. Despite what I go through however, I am still a Russian-raised girl (whether I like it or not) and this means that I will keep it together--under any circumstances. One hand clutching the railing, the other brushing off my pants, I manage to lift my long model’s body (as Andrei likes to call it) off of the dirty ground. I grab my suitcase and straighten my shoulders as I take another look at my ticket. To my relief and astonishment, the room that I will be staying in is only a few doors down. It it the room closest to the passage between train cars.
The door to my room is open. I can’t help but hope that maybe--just maybe-- this means I will be alone. The open door however, is anything but luring. I have heard countless stories, not to mention the first-hand experiences, about the types of people one meets on the trains. In my mind the remote, unattractiveness of the destination provides and additional increase in risk, but I have spent much of my childhood on this route, so I know my worries are unreasonable. Nonetheless, I make a mental note to take minor precautions when entering. I peak around the corner to see if I am really lucky enough to be alone. The cabin is tight, just big enough to fit four people and a small popup between two of the lower level cots. My heart sinks at the sight of an old looking figure at the other end of the cabin. I forget all about restraint and manners and let out an exaggerated moan as I take in my bunkmate for the next 24 hours. The person, not more than three meters away from me, is hunched over the pullout table opposite the door. Though it is often hard to tell in Russia, the body belonging to my bunkmate seems to be that of an old woman. Another annoying old Babushka. Great. It wasn’t bad enough that I have to go stay with one, now I get to BUNK with one on the way there! By the time I get back to Moscow, I’ll probably have been around so many Baba’s that I’ll have become one myself. In a few weeks, I’ll be just like the rest of them; an old hag with no money and no life. Perfect. Then Andrei can finally dump me for that waitress he always dotes over.
The train jerks abruptly into motion. I stand in the doorway, but the sudden movement throws me into the right side of the doorway. It makes me feel like one of those floppy Russian dolls they sell at the metro stations. I believe in America they call them just what they are, “rag dolls”. Whenever Russian dolls are referred to as “rag dolls” however, the baba’s get offended and say they are “beautiful pieces of Russian handiwork that should never have to bare such a degrading title”. Speaking of Babas, I almost laugh as I realize that, despite the clatter my heels made as I tried to regain my balance, my bunkmate baba has not noticed my presence. Still awkwardly standing in the doorway, I watch as the hunched over baba smacks away on something from a plastic grocery bag. The Baba is obviously not affected by the increasing forward momentum of the train, but her bag is. The old baba’s incredibly ancient-looking duffel-bag/large-purse starts to slide off of the cot it sits on. The bag finally crashes to the floor, startling the feasting baba. She jumps at the crashing noise made by the overstuffed duffel-bag. Flustered and caught off guard, she stands up and spins around (not too gracefully), to see what noise had startled her. It is only after her old eyes examine the fallen bag that she looks up and notices me.
“Oh, hello girl!” Her voice is aged and raspy, and she is obviously already out of breath; just from standing up. I nod at her and even go as far as to put on a sweet and innocent little smile. I’ll just be extra “considerate” and “respectful towards my elder” today; I don’t have the energy to argue with some old woman for the entire trip. I’ve learned the hard way that “Russian babas are NEVER wrong”. This babushka looks particularly feisty. She looks to be about 4 feet 5 inches (as the American’s would say). The top of her head is about two feet below my eye-level.
“I take it you are my bunkmate, huh? You must be a pretty slow walker to have just gotten here! Say, what is your name girl?”
“Polina. And yours, Mrs.?” I know playing the polite card was the right thing to do as she takes a step towards me and reaches a hand out to grab one of my own. She anxiously snatches up my only free hand and clasps it in both of her old, frail hands. I feel a gagging sensation in the back of my throat as the grease from her fingers soaks into my skin, and the smell of raw fish fills my nostrils. I look over her head at the pullout table directly behind her. Every square centimeter of the little table is covered with plastic green grocery bags that babas are so often seen using. The grocery bags of course are not fresh or new, and neither is the food. Nauseating fumes drift up from each bag. All of the edges of the bags have been folded over in order for the baba to eat out of all of them at once. Yes you guessed it; this is how a baba holds a feast when there are no guests to impress. Plastic bags for china plates and fingers for intricate silverware. A true feast. In one bag I spy the raw fish. The pink juice from the fish seeps into every little crease of the bag it is in. This mustbe the baba’s favorite dish because it is positioned closest to where the baba sits, and I’m sure I can smell the the strong fish scent on her breath. Absolutely nauseating. I am definitely going to puke. I feel my eyes starting to water and the only thing on my mind is grabbing my wallet and heading for the train cafe. Or basically anywhere else.
“Yelena Nickolayavna.”, she states proudly. She then releases my hand and lets it drop to my side. She takes a step back to lean up against the table, and then she does exactly what is to be expected of a judgmental old Russian baba. She stands there in front of me and eyes me from head to toe. I mean, seriously? Ok sure, I judge too. Actually I’m very judgmental, but I don’t do it right in front of the person I’m judging! It takes all the fun out of it. Once again, no use fighting this baba. She opens her mouth to talk, and I know I’ll be getting an earful.
“There is really not much to that shirt, is there girl?” She spits out criticism after criticism. Once she gets rolling, it’s all open fire. Good thing I can take it like a true Moscow chick. “Be careful with those pants too, they look like they might just cut off your circulation. I don’t know any medical procedures you know. Oh and my oh my(!), those are some expensive looking shoes! How much did those cost you? Your rent? Or maybe you sold your poor old grandma to buy these?” I try to laugh her off of me, but she persists in the same nagging, old voice that I am so familiar with. “How much girl? How many precious rubles did you throw away?”
“It was a few rubles. It’s not a big deal.” Her little beady eyes widen and a knowing mysterious smile creeps across her wrinkled face. She must have picked up on the irritation in my voice because her response is much calmer and less accusing, “Only a few rubles?” she plops down on one of the cots before finally continuing. Then, she looks at me and states matter-of-factly: “Did you know that’s more than I make (pensioner benefits) each
YEAR?” she then bursts out laughing (admittedly in good nature) and slaps her knee at the thought of it. I can feel my cheeks burning as I stand there awkwardly with absolutely no idea what to do. These are the times that I wish I did have an annoying, nagging old grandmother at home like every other Russian. IfI had one, I would be so used to this type of thing, I would know exactly how to react. But, I do not have a baba to nag at me at home, so I do the best I can in the situation at hand.
“You look startled girl,” she has stopped laughing and is now simply looking up at me with a smile. “Don’t worry. Some people need fancy black shoes and a silk ball gown to be happy, and some people just need a trusty pair of slippers and an old sweater. It is obvious what each of us prefers so, with that said, please make yourself at home in here!” I don’t say a word. Don’t even smile at her. I just shove my suitcase against the wall and plop down on one of the cots.
I unscrew the lid to my coca cola. I smile at the familiar sound of bottled up fizz escaping the bottle. That sound has always felt so reassuring. I remember when I first heard that satisfying sound. I was about 12 years old and Mama and I were living, just the two of us, in a little apartment in Moscow. It was a Monday night and Mama was cooking dinner in the kitchen. She told me that we were having someone over for dinner; someone fromAmerica. Mom always loved America. She used to tell me that if she had only been born there and not here, she would definitely be a world-renowned actress or model by now. I remember the day so well. She seemed distant and a little bit more nervous than usual. I didn’t think anything of it because, well, I was nervous too! No one in my class knew an American, and I just couldn’t wait to tell everyone the next day. Mama cooked a nice meal, nicer than she normally cooked, and then disappeared into her room for about an hour. When she came back out, she was wearing her nicest dress and her highest heels. She looked absolutely gorgeous. I also noticed she was wearing her bright red lipstick that she bought on the black market last spring.