Wednesday, May 25, 2011
Sally heaved her cello case onto her back and felt for the map in her pocket. Behind her a door squeaked open, and her host sister Irina wandered into the apartment entryway, running fingers through her pink highlights.
“I can be ready in five minutes,” Irina said. “I’ll walk you to your audition.”
“It’s okay,” Sally said, tucking her hands into the armpits of her purple fleece. “I remember how to get there.” She glanced at where the worn floor boards met the molding on the wall, searching for a gap or something to explain the cold.
“You sure? It’s right on my way.”
Sally nodded, her lips pressed together. Halfway through her sleepless night, Sally had realized the bed she was in actually belonged to Irina. How it took her thirty-six hours to notice she couldn’t figure.
But there was no way she was going to make Irina escort her around all week on top of that. She cleared her throat, “I didn’t mean to wake you.”
Irina waved a hand. “It’d be good if I was on time to school for once.
Are you hungry at all?” Sally shook her head. “Your mama trapped me in the kitchen.” She tugged at the waist of her jeans. “It didn’t matter that I was still full from last night.”
Irina laughed. “Food. It’s like the official Russian welcoming party.”
She shifted from one sock foot to the other. “So, are you nervous?”
But before Sally could answer, Mama burst out of the kitchen, carrying two pieces of bread wrapped in a thin towel. The smell of sautéing onions arrived with her, and a large black poodle trotted close behind.
“I didn’t realize you were leaving so soon, Sally. Here, just in case you get hungry,” Mama said, thrusting the bread into her hand despite Sally vigorously shaking her head. The poodle bounced joyously between the three sets of legs. “You’ve already changed your dollars into rubles at the bank, right? Do you still have that map where I circled the concert hall? Irina, aren’t you going with her? Why aren’t you dressed yet?”
“It’s okay,” Sally said, finding her voice. “Irina showed me where the concert hall was yesterday, and it’s better to go by myself. It’ll help me stay focused on the competition.”
“Of course,” Mama said, nodding.
Irina, who had been leaning up against the wall, put her hands on the faded wallpaper and pushed herself back to standing. “Sharra! Get down,” she scolded, coming forward to pry the poodle off of Sally.
“Sally, you’re shivering. Are you alright?”
“Oh, my dear,” Mama said, taking Sally’s free hand, “you’re so cold.
Why didn’t you say something? The city doesn’t turn on the heat until October 1st. Sally dear, is that coat all you have?”
Sally was hoping they’d just assume the shaking was an American thing.
You know, all that coffee in the bloodstream. “I’ll be fine once I start walking. That’ll warm me up.” But Mama was already rummaging around in a closet. “I have some gloves,” Sally said, digging into the pockets of her fleece. Mama didn’t say anything until she emerged, holding a scarf.
“You must keep your throat warm. Very important for your health.”
Sally resisted, but not for long. The scarf was beautiful. Small black flowers wove around each other against a gold background.
“It was my great-grandmother’s,” Irina said, nodding to the scarf before she shuffled down the hallway to get a mop. A puddle had appeared on the floor. Sharra sat next to it, looking relieved.
Soon Sally was heading down the apartment stairwell, her cello bumping against her with each step. She let out a long breath. The scarf was around her neck, and she already felt better. She was going to be fine. Her friends back home didn’t know what they were talking about.
The people here were nothing like they’d said they would be. And, just because she always cried at Hallmark commercials didn’t mean she was too much of a softie. Here she was after her second night of no sleep and no heat, but was she a sobbing pile of mush? No. Anyway, Hallmark probably spent millions making sure people cried. She just did what what she was supposed to do.
And she could do that here, too. Just supposed to focus on the competition, right?
Blocking out everything but music happened to be Sally’s specialty.
At the bottom of the stairs, Sally pushed against the heavy metal door, but it didn’t budge. She reared back and slammed her shoulder against it, only to get the elbow of her fleece caught on something – a deadbolt quietly holding the door in place. Groaning, she turned it, and the door swung open, out into the cold St. Petersburg air.
But Sally didn’t move.
Sprawled across her path was a man, ripe with alcohol and snoring forcefully. He hadn’t made it far before calling it a night considering the bar was next door. Not quite the same as the stray cat that greeted her every morning when she left the house back in Minnesota. Of course, they weren’t really that different. But the man took up the entire stoop.
Sally reached an arm back to steady the cello against her and leapt over the man, barely missing the edge of his black leather jacket.
Then she straightened up and headed for the concert hall. Take that, Hallmark.
But halfway down the block she stopped, looked down at the bread still in her hand, and hustled back to the stoop. Before she had time to chicken out, she had placed it next to the man and was on her way again. Everyone deserves a good breakfast.
As she continued on down the quiet side street, she could hear the beginning of the Dvorak concerto rumbling within her. Soon her green Converse sneakers scratched against the concrete like a metronome, and the first passionate phrases pulsed through her.
When she turned onto Nevsky Prospect, the main street of Saint Petersburg, a blast of wind sent her brown curls flying. A bus lumbered back into motion after making a stop, belching out hot, oily fumes. Sally held her breath until the smell had dissipated and then paused to check her map. The Bolshoi Concert Hall was only seven blocks ahead, and she didn’t want to be too early for her time slot.
Extra time would just give her nerves a chance to get out and stretch.
As it was, her insides were already churning.
Walking more slowly, Sally heard the gentle phrases from later on in the concerto, the ones that shimmered in their stillness. Waves of people in blacks and grays swelled past her. The faces were grim, sealed off, but that was alright with Sally. She had Dvorak.
A piece of trash blew out of a narrow alley and grazed her hand on its way down the sidewalk. With runs of sixteenth notes now spinning through her head, Sally watched it get caught in an updraft, but the music faded when she tried to figure out what it was. A section of pantyhose? A bandage? She didn’t have a clue. That must be the definition of a foreign country, Sally thought: a place where you can’t even recognize the litter.
Sally had assumed this city would be just like the others she’d been to for competitions, but it was clear St. Petersburg was different.
The buildings were all from another era. Sally spotted a Kentucky Fried Chicken, and even the upper floors of that were adorned with columns and angels, proclaiming who knows what? Probably not something about a bucket of drumsticks. And the colors of the buildings. Pink.
Blue. Green. Peach. No one had told her the city would be this beautiful.
Sally crossed over a narrow canal and paused on the other side, next to a statue of a man and horse, silhouetted against a fuchsia building. Sally stared up at it and tapped out more patterns of sixteenth notes against the cold stone base. It was not your average man sitting sedately atop a horse. Instead, man and horse seemed to be locked in a desperate wrestling match. Sally shook her head. The faces passing her on the street might be expressionless, but emotion bubbled out of the concrete.
Just ahead the road rose up into a bridge, and a sidewalk tucked down beneath it where pedestrians disappeared into shadows. Yesterday, Sally had followed Irina over the bridge without a thought, but now the sad notes of a balalaika floated up from below. Sally wavered, but soon two Converse sneakers were among the pairs of shoes heading under the bridge.
Clustered on stools and blankets, selling trinkets, were bundled old women. Their faces poked out from head scarves like the one wrapped around Sally’s neck. She fingered her scarf and then saw the musician.
The man had a weathered face, and his eyes were closed as he plucked the strings. The folk song danced above Sally like an injured bird, until it came to rest on her shoulder. The cold wind was gone. The air closed in on her, humid and thick. Sweat beaded up on Sally’s upper lip and the back of her neck. A buzzing joined the music, weaving around her, twitching in her ear. Rising up from the ground was a stench, thick like the air, rife with decomposition and decay, coating her mouth with rank sweetness. A gruff voice behind her made her spin around.
“Keep digging or you’ll be lying there next to him. He’s lucky to die in the morning because the tsar ordered this done today. Unless you want the last thing you see to be the side of this ditch, you’d better move!”
The voice was so close, but where was the man? And who was he shouting at? Looking around, Sally saw only the same grumbling crowd, but even they seemed to be fading in and out, rippling with the waves of heat.
And the buzzing. Like a mosquito. But it couldn’t be that. It was so cold. At least, it had been. Sweaty hair stuck to the back of Sally’s neck. Desperate to cool down, she tore off the scarf.
It was cold again. The wind was back. The smell was gone. She rubbed the back of her neck, and she wasn’t even sweaty anymore. Like she had just imagined it.
What was wrong with her? A panic attack? The beginnings of a fever?
Sally shook her head. Getting sick this week was the last thing she needed.
She took a deep breath, stuffed the scarf in her pocket, and looked around. The music had stopped, and the man was tightening the strings on his balalaika. She shouldn’t have stopped to listen. The Bolshoi Hall was just a few blocks further.
But as she walked she found herself rubbing the back of her hand against her jeans, and she glanced at it.
She came to an abrupt halt. There, angry and itchy, was a mosquito bite.
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