Tuesday, May 31, 2011
Sally heaved her cello case onto her back and felt for the map in her pocket. She undid two of the three locks on the door, but when her host sister emerged from the bedroom, she retracted her hand. Sneaking out wasn’t good etiquette, no matter what the country.
“I can be ready soon,” Irina said, running fingers through her pink highlights. “I’ll walk you there.”
“You don’t have to. I remember the way.” The Russian rolled off Sally’s tongue, but her voice shook. Probably because she was freezing. She peeked at the last lock.
“You sure? It’s on my way to school.”
Sally nodded. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”
Irina waved her hand. “It’s probably good to be on time once in a while, change things up, you know? Did you already eat?”
“I ran into your mama in the kitchen,” Sally said, tugging at the waistband of her jeans. “It didn’t matter that I was still full from last night.”
“Food. It’s like the official Russian welcoming party.”
Sally managed a smile. “But I need to go now. To clear my head before it’s time.”
“Of course.” Irina reached over to undo the final lock. “I’m glad I’m not in your shoes. I’d be a nervous wreck.”
So Irina thought Sally was calm? Maybe being in a fog of sleep deprivation had benefits.
“Sally?” a voice called.
“Quickly,” Irina whispered, “before--”
But Mama burst into the entryway, carrying two pieces of bread wrapped in a 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, in case you get hungry,” Mama thrust the bread into Sally’s hand despite Sally vigorously shaking her head. The poodle bounced 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?”
“Sharra! Get down,” Irina scolded, as she pried the poodle off of Sally. Sharra next tried her luck with the faded wallpaper and was again up on hind legs, the pads of her front paws skidding against it.
“Irina offered to come,” Sally said, “but she showed me how to get to the concert hall yesterday, and it’s better if I go by myself. I need to stay focused.”
“Certainly,” Mama said, putting her hand on Sally’s arm. As soon as she touched her, her eyes shot to Sally’s face. “Sally dear, you’re shivering. Are you alright?”
Sally nodded, but as she reached for the doorknob, Mama intercepted her hand and pressed it against her cheek. “You’re so cold. Why didn’t you say something? The city doesn’t turn on the heat until October 1st. Is that coat all you have?”
Sally was hoping they’d assume the shaking was an American thing. You know, all that caffeine in the bloodstream. “I’ll be fine once I start walking. That’ll warm me up.” But Mama was rummaging around in a closet. Sally dug into the pockets of her fleece. “I have some gloves,” she said, pulling out a pair that had been there since last winter. That was lucky. Gloves hadn’t even made it to the “If There’s Extra Space” section of her packing list. She had never thought she could be so cold in September.
Mama didn’t say anything until she emerged from the closet, 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 worn floor boards. Sharra sat next to it, looking relieved.
Soon Sally was heading down the apartment stairwell with the scarf around her neck. Her cello bumped against her with each step. She let out a long breath. She was relieved to be on her own so she could focus, but the truth was this family had been nothing but kind to her.
Her friends back home had no idea what they were talking about.
Evidently watching James Bond movies didn’t qualify them to accurately characterize a whole nation of people. And, anyway, they had been wrong about Sally, too. Not tough enough to last a week here, eh? Here she was, cold and exhausted with just a few hours to go before the first round of competition, but was she a sobbing pile of mush? No. So what if she always teared up at Hallmark commercials when she and her friends would veg in front of the TV. Hallmark probably spent millions making sure people cried. Market research. Focus Groups. The works.
She was just doing what what she was supposed to do.
And she could do that here, too. Just supposed to focus on the competition, right?
No problem. Blocking out everything but music happened to be Sally’s specialty.
At the bottom of the stairs, Sally pushed against the heavy metal door, and it swung out into the cold St. Petersburg air. But she 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 that the bar was right next door. Not quite the same as the stray cat that greeted her every morning when she left the house in Minnesota for the bus stop. 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. She straightened up and headed for the concert hall.
Take that, Hallmark.
But halfway down the block she stopped, looked at the bread in her hand, and hustled back to the stoop. Before she had time to chicken out, she had placed it next to the man. Everyone deserves a good breakfast.
As she continued down the quiet side street, she could hear the beginning of the Dvorak concerto rumbling deep in her body. Soon the soles of 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. She tugged the scarf up over her chin. Even though the scarf was thin, it trapped precious heat against her. Next to her, a bus lumbered into motion after making a stop, belching out oily fumes. Sally held her breath until the smell dissipated and then paused to check her map. The Bolshoi Concert Hall was only seven blocks ahead, and as much as she had been impatient to leave the apartment, she didn’t want to be too early for her time slot. Extra time would 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 in the concerto, the ones that shimmered in their stillness. Waves of people in blacks and grays rolled 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 always assumed a city meant skyscrapers, and none of the other cities she’d been to for competitions had made her question that. But there were no skyscrapers here. The buildings, five stories at the most, were from another era. Sally studied the Kentucky Fried Chicken across the street, and even the upper floors of that were adorned with angels, their mouths open, proclaiming who knows what?
Probably not something about a bucket of drumsticks. And the colors of the buildings. Pink. Blue. Green. Peach. That was the first thing she’d noticed when she’d arrived. Why did other cities let buildings be gray when there were so many other possibilities?
Sally crossed over a narrow canal and came to the statue of a man and horse, where yesterday Irina had paused to explain the abbreviations on her map. Sally stared up at the statue and tapped out more patterns of sixteenth notes against the smooth stone base. It was not your average man sitting sedately atop a horse. Instead, silhouetted against a fuchsia building, man and horse were locked in a desperate wrestling match. Sally shook her head. The faces that passed her on the street might be expressionless, but emotion bubbled out of the concrete.
Ahead, the road rose into a bridge, and a sidewalk tucked beneath it where pedestrians disappeared into shadows. When she was with Irina, Sally had crossed over without a thought, but now the sad notes of a Russian folk song floated up from below. Sally wavered, and 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 of a balalaika. 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, humid and thick. As beads of sweat formed on her upper lip, a stench, rife with decomposition and decay, coated her mouth with rank sweetness. Weaving around her, twitching in her ear, was a buzzing. Sally could no longer even hear the balalaika. Only the buzzing. Until a man’s voice thundered behind her, and she spun 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 what was that 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 buzzing was gone. She rubbed her neck, and she wasn’t sweaty anymore. Like she had 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 and stuffed the scarf in her pocket. 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.
As she walked she found herself rubbing the back of her hand against her jeans, and she glanced down.
She came to an abrupt halt. There, angry and itchy, was a mosquito bite.
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