It is so easy to look for meaning in the small things but when something big happens it becomes a story, without context. Everything that happens could only happen in that country, which makes you feel like you are living in something that has been prepared and has an outcome or conclusion or lesson. And you feel like you're the only one who gets it and because of that, you are somehow special. It's dangerous and stupid to think that way all the time. Living in Russia encourages Americans to live inwardly, to live paying attention to where one fits in the world. Solitary people and young people tend to do that anyway, but living abroad hones the sense of purpose behind everyday occurrences.
When the expats get together, it's even worse. We gather at someone's apartment with beer and spaghetti or some expensive rotisserie chickens and a loaf of bread, creating a cozy haven against that everyday life, full as we think it is of its meaning and its symbols and lessons. We have the right to be lazy and speak English and laugh at this place; all know how hard it is, and how we need — no, deserve — a break. We trade stories like it's halftime. Repeating the stories makes them only less real, part of the canon. It doesn't process the events or the growth; we are repeating scenes ironically, like people who communicate with each other only by quoting TV shows. I know that my standing will rise because I have a first-hand story about riding in a car with two people.
And at these get togethers is the unspoken self-congratulation of being worldly and aware because we're so daring, so fluent and risky. Part of living in a movie is believing that every person around you is playing a bit part in your life. The only reason we feel this way is because we can leave it any time we want. We all have escape routes, one-way tickets home in our back pockets. It's the hedging that gives us contempt. We pretend we have a stake in building a new country, but if it fails, we're just as bad as the IMF experts and Jeffrey Sachs, climbing to the top of the embassy to get out.
I hear a story about hitching a ride in a militia jeep — they are army-green with a blue flashing light on the top. The driver asks an exorbitant amount for the ride, and the American says, "Sure — as long as the blue light is flashing the whole time." The driver agrees, and takes the American on a roller-coaster ride through the streets — barreling through red lights, flying onto sidewalks and around jams as cars hustle out of the way of the oncoming police jeep.
It's a captivating tale, and one of the best: it can be easily duplicated, it illustrates country. At the time, I generally tried to avoid waving down militia cars, because they often have more than one person in them, and uniforms don't ensure good behavior.
I keep the story in mind when I try to catch cars. On another, calmer evening in summer, where I'm not being pursued by goons and can catch a ride in a normal fashion, a militia jeep slows. I'm at St. Isaac's, and it's easy to catch a car here. It's a warm, mellow evening. The heat of summer is still mitigated by cool nights, and the dust hasn't risen yet.
I look in the jeep. There is only the driver. He is young, with dark hair and beautiful dark eyes, although he does not look me in the face. I tell him where he's going and he names his price. It's a little high. I smile and say, "Sure, as long as the blue light flashes during the way."
I stumble over the words, "flash" in particular. I'm conscious that my grammar is substandard. I tried to say it flirtatiously, but got lost in the sentence. He shrugs, still not looking at me, and I get in.
He pulls the jeep back into the road without turning the light on. I don't say anything, although I'm annoyed. I try to compose a sentence.
"Hey, I paid to have the light flashing!"
"When are you going to turn the light on?"
"What's a girl got to do to get a light to flash around here?"
None of these seems right. I settle for "the light?" and am suddenly washed in self-loathing. He ignores me and drives on through the dusk. He takes a couple of turns and takes an unfamiliar way home. I am not afraid. He comes to an intersection and whicks on the flasher to get us through the yellow light: stay back; wait. And then he turns it off.
That is all I'm going to get.
The evening turns cool, and he doesn't roll up his window. I'm chilly and feel like a cigarette but I don't want to say anything to him again.
We get to the intersection where I'm usually dropped off and he asks which building I live in. I don't tell drivers which building, preferring to get out on a slightly more anonymous corner. But I have lost the language and am unable to say, "No, no; here is fine." I point out the drive, and he stops at my door.
He turns to me and meets my eyes. His gaze devastates me. How funny I am to use this country as a playground, knowing I can escape. I have asked a militia man to lie for money. How culturally clever, how responsible as a global citizen. I give him the money and thank him; he says nothing. I get out. When I close the door he is still looking at me. I don't have the words to apologize and he drives off, the flasher on the top of the jeep dark and still.