In St. Petersburg, Russia, I got hit in the head with a bridge. It was a stone bridge, with a high arch and a low foot and a girdle of steel spotted with moss and green mold. There was a man walking across it with anger closing his face like a fist and a proud girl in a flashing skirt and a prancing dog looking up at them with eyes of love. We had just passed another boat full of screaming people, one of them a drunken man standing on the prow and acting like he was masturbating. I smiled at him, my husband laughed and said, A guy goes by jerking off and you smile!
We were in Russia teaching at a two-week writing conference. It didn't pay much, but still we'd wanted to go: My husband's father had been born in Russia; he had escaped just before the Revolution, hidden under the straw of a vegetable cart with a bag of jewelry down his shirt and an earwig in his ear. He came to New York and ran a catering service. When he and his wife
(a Finn) fought, they did it in Russian, and in this way Peter had learned a bit of the language. I had grown up seeing the Russian Premier pounding a shoe on a table as he threatened to storm our houses and lawns. I found him terrible and wonderful, and when I was ten my parents gave me a subscription to a magazine called Soviet Life
so that I could find out more about his country. Other girls played with Barbies and Beatle dolls with giant heads; they walked around with transistor radios held to their ears. I held Soviet Life
, taking it out in school and covertly smoothing it open inside my desk to look at pictures of ballerinas with huge Soviet faces in pink feathered headdresses. I said I was going to be a writer, and that one day I would go to Russia as an international spy. Forty years later, I was a writer in a boat on the Neva under the midnight sun with my writer husband. The day before, Paul McCartney had played at the Hermitage; we could hear him and his band from our hotel blocks away, a dark roar of sound rolling through the streets, rolling past and present together.
If someone had told me when I was ten that I would grow up to be a writer, that I would be invited to read in Russia, and that a Beatle would be playing just a few blocks away, it would have made my life worth living. Now that it had all happened, I was simply disgruntled by the lack of toilet seats and paper, the giardia in the water supply, and the animals starving because people who couldn't afford to feed their pets anymore put them out on the street.
To read the rest of this story and others from the Summer 2005 issue, click here to purchase it from our online store.