I’ve always dreamt of a visit to a Moscow banya. My mom said such good things about how soft her skin was and how relaxed she felt after her visits when we lived there when I was a little girl. So this limp light-headedness is busting my bubble. After hours of heat and steam and prodding and flogging, I’m feeling low-glucose–and disappointed that this experience doesn’t match up with the picture she painted for me.
I’m grateful to drag myself into the weak fall sun for the reviving slap of cool air against my skin and make my way to a corner cafe the Fodor guide recommends. I was maybe overly romantic in my choice of a late-fall visit to Ekaterinburg to satisfy a different childhood nostalgia for information about the fall of the Romanov family. A semester off from college to travel and the loosening of the Communist stranglehold on movement through the former Soviet Union gave me the perfect excuse. But traveling alone, with spotty Russian and being channeled into touristy traps don’t match my ideal of being footloose and fancy-free.
I’ve already had to make my excuses to a few sleazy male mafia wannabe types, so I’m considering calling the trip a bust and making my way back toward Europe, where I have friends. At least the sugary black tea the waiter serves stops my head from spinning.
Then I have to blink and do a double-take: I know the two women at the table beside me. Anne looks a lot like me, with darker and longer hair. And Olga is as impossibly chic as I’d imagined.
How could they possibly be real?
I duck, trying to hide, until I remember they won’t know me. But maybe I can listen, unobtrusively, and discover more of their story. I push my chair back and angle it marginally closer, ostensibly to look out out the plate glass overlooking the square in this downtown corner of the city.
Olga slews her chair around and asks, “Why don’t you just join us?”
Busted. My ears feel hot and I stammer for a minute as I waver about the implications. Olga’s sly grin decides me, though. I’ve always wanted to know her better, so I shuffle my chair over and turn around to grab my tea. In my nervousness I knock it off the table.
I watch the liquid spread, helpless to do anything to mitigate the mess with the thin square of paper masquerading as a napkin, until Olga, smothering a belly laugh, jumps up to grab a passing waiter in a gabble of rapid-fire Russian.
Two more waiters show up with a rag and mop, clean up the mess, and deliver a new glass of tea. I take a deep gulp while Anne waves me over to sit down at their table. “So. Where are you from?”
“Oh. I go to college in a very small town in southern Virginia right now, but asking where I’m from is a bit of a non-starter, since my folks are in the foreign service. We’ve lived all over the world. Right now they’re in Taiwan.” I snap my jaws shut when I realize I’m babbling.
Anne nods. “I’m from Chicago. This is my first visit to Russia.”
“I’ve been here before. I lived here with my family when I was a little girl. But we lived in Moscow, so this is my first time to Ekaterinburg. I read Nicholas and Alexandra in High School and was so fascinated by the end of their story I thought it would be cool to explore the city where it all happened.” I shake my head. I’ve got to get my blabbermouth under control.
Olgo rejoins us while the wait staff clean up the last of my mess. “You lived in Moscow? When?”
“78 to 80.” Too late, I realize I should’ve been more discrete.
“You said your parents were diplomats?”
“Yeah. My dad worked for the Foreign Agriculture Service. So when he said he was going on field trips it was the literal truth.” I snap my teeth together again. What is wrong with me? I’m not usually this garrulous.
“How old were you?”
“I was in first, second, and third grade at the Anglo American School in Moscow.” I press my lips together and stare into my teacup. Olga was trained by the KGB. Did she slip something into my drink in the confusion?
“How did you recognize us?”
I’m helpless not to respond. “You were in my dream. About the dragons who were trapped in human form by the Communisits.”
Olga trades a look with Anne and says, “Maybe we should take a walking tour?”
Now I lose utter control of my tongue as I’m shuffled out of the cafe, trapped in the iron grasp of these two women’s arms. I can’t even stutter a coherent phrase to ask how I’ve been dosed–or what they plan to do with me.
The city passes in a kaleidescopic haze, wavering with the same dream-like intensity as if I were truly asleep. I know they’re talking about me. And about their adventure. But my brain is a sieve and it’s impossible to trap any of the details. How could I have met these women I invented, anyway?
I roll over and pound my pillow. My head is throbbing. I look at the clock. Wait. Where am I now? I get out of bed and step over my sleeping Husky to head for the kitchen and a glass of water. Which version of reality was real, then?