A. A. Weiss grew up in Maine and now resides in New York City. He teaches in NA’s Language Department after having lived in Ecuador, Mexico, Moldova and New Jersey. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Hippocampus Magazine, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Pure Slush and The Writing Disorder. The following essays, “The Russian Victory Network” (Eunoia Review, January 2015), “Where There is No Doctor” (Pure Slush, January 2015) and “The Museum of Atheism” (1966: A Journal of Creative Nonfiction, October 2014) are excerpted from a work-in-progress memoir.
At first I found nothing special about the room. In the cabinet in the corner the class journals stood as a reminder I needed to input my grades before the parent-teacher conferences. The head of the language department had spoken to me sternly about recording my grades, but she’d spoken in Russian and I hadn’t felt shamed enough to compute them instantly as she wished. I then saw the television set. It looked new and the electrical cord was plugged into the wall. I didn’t want to get my hopes up. I stood and approached slowly as though it were an animal that might kick. Warmth radiated from smooth plastic into my palm when I touched it; someone had been watching TV recently. I touched the power button tentatively as though it would surely shock me. Nothing happened. I gave up and returned to my seat. A minute later, after I’d cursed myself for thinking the TV would work, the picture and sound blinked on. I was then watching the Russian national team play water polo some time in the past. They were still called the Soviets. And they were winning—finishing off a water polo massacre, in fact—up by a dozen goals. I’d stumbled onto the RVN—the Russian Victory Network. I invented this name after watching endless replays of Russian athletes dominating second-tier sports. During the next several weeks I learned to expect the near-impossible comeback in cross-country skiing and never to bet against a Russian getting pummeled in a German boxing hall.Nata, the school’s young English teacher, entered the lounge with an elderly woman whose hair was dyed an unnatural orange. The woman was a Romanian teacher. Nata and the woman nodded to me as they entered and sat on the opposite side of the room to safely speak about me in whispers. They looked in my direction frequently, and turned their heads away rapidly when I turned to look at them.The pair of language teachers hardly seemed interested in sport.
“You like sport?” Nata bellowed across the room.
I said that I did and Nata poked the ribs of the Romanian teacher (a poke, perhaps, for the fire-haired woman having doubted Nata’s ability with English). Nata was only twenty-four years old—young for the faculty at this lyceum—and never spoke to me in English without having prepared her statements in advance.
“What do you think of Alabama?” Nata asked next. “The state in America.”
I didn’t know what to say. She obviously hadn’t misspoken.
Nata took a paper from her breast pocket and reversed the folds. She presented me the sheet, on which I read a series of minimum-wage job listings in Montgomery, Alabama. My first thought went to the former president of Mexico, Vicente Fox. He’d once gotten in trouble for saying his Mexicans were only offered the jobs even the blacks weren’t willing to touch; now I read over a list of jobs for Moldovans in Alabama—jobs nobody else on Earth would take.
“The people are friendly,” I said.
She asked about the work and shook her head when I described the duties of motel chambermaids and theme park custodians.
“Just an idea,” she said. “Work and travel. Like you.”
Nata translated everything I’d said to the Romanian teacher, who shook her head while saying nyet, nyet, nyet. The woman told Nata she should trust me; I’d voluntarily come to Moldova and wouldn’t lie about bad jobs.
Nata smiled, though I could tell she was disappointed. Then her expression changed to authentic joy. “Do you remember your first day,” she asked. “A girl came to you saying a boy had burnt her hair with a match.” Nata covered her mouth before giggles overcame her. She regained her composure and said, “You patted her head and said, ‘Well done.’” She quickly translated for the Romanian teacher and the two began laughing. “People have been laughing about you ever since.”
The pair left after wishing me health and happiness.
Shortly after, I ended my day with eighth graders. The alpha girl who kept order was absent, skipping class, and I knew there was going to be a problem; Miroslav was sitting in the front row. This was the boy who enjoyed playing recorded monkey noises off his cell phone to distract me. He wasn’t sitting close in order to learn.
“What do you want, Miroslav?”
“Give me your cell phone.”
“You’re in Nastia’s space.”
“She’s not here.”
“She’ll hit you when she hears of this.”
“Not a problem, Mr. Aaron.”
So we began the lesson with a focused Miroslav front and center. I remember thinking he seemed mature. Ten minutes later he stood to leave. He went around shaking the hands of each boy. The girls received hugs. I told him to sit.
“No, I have to leave now.”
“Do you have a note?”
He smiled and walked out the door.
“He’s leaving,” said one of the boys.
“I see that.”
“To Russia. He’s leaving school to find work. You won’t see him again.”
I looked at one of the girls I trusted and she nodded to indicate it was true. I ran into the hall and caught up with Miroslav, told him I was sorry, that I hadn’t understood. He shook my hand as an adult would have. He was fourteen. His new maturity nearly made me cry. From one day to the next he’d decided to switch off his childhood emotions—and he’d done it. Now he was going to find work outside Moscow. The thirty-hour bus ride departed from Balti in a short while.
Before he walked away Miroslav wished me health, happiness, and luck with my bad students.
I returned to class.
The students afterward were silent and respectful. I wanted a girl to cry so that I could support her. The bell rang to change periods and the pupils moved along without any need for me. Not wishing to leave the school, I returned to the teachers’ room and watched a hockey match, the Reds versus a team in blue, the match without score for the first five minutes until the blue goalie let in a soft dribbler, and then the floodgates opened.
I struggled to stir the sugar into my tea. At the breakfast table Mama Tanya called me an old man. I ate my potatoes and worried about vitamin deficiency.
After changing into my clothes, before heading over to teach, I took out the resource manual the Peace Corps nurse had given each volunteer at training: a glossy illustrated textbook called, Where There is No Doctor. The text offered equal amounts of amusing, practical and nightmare-inducing information. It warned never to blame local witchcraft practitioners; you never should have trusted them in the first place. (An illustration labeled “NO” shows an incriminating finger pointing at a wrinkled woman with a hooked nose.) From this book I learned how to make a toothbrush from a twig, and also a bone splint from several twigs. The book, in fact, assumed universal twig availability. The scariest thing to do with a twig: retract a parasitic tape worm from your abdomen by tying one end to the handy twig and twisting a little each day; the idea being to retract the worm out of your body a centimeter a day, for as many days as it took (re: weeks).
According to the book, today my symptoms indicated scurvy. I resolved to walk to the bazaar and buy an orange.
When I spoke to strangers I rarely got a speedy response. I would have to wait while they worked out the possibilities of my origins. Many guessed I was Polish. Some thought I might be German, though with only a basic education. Mama Tanya said my accent in Russian sounded familiar but soft, as though it belonged to someone from simpler times. I’d need more presence if I desired an audience; I’d need to project a force that anyone receiving my words would experience as we engaged in conversation, the unspoken subtext of all speech to establish my physical presence, the possibility of instant domination.
Buying an orange proved a difficult chore.
My use of language had become rather specified. At school and at home I’d grown accustomed to being understood. I knew well how to boss kids around a classroom and how to ask for less sugar in my tea. Through practice with my many linguistic imperfections the kids and Mama Tanya frequently knew what I wanted before I could open my mouth. In training I’d been warned that strangers wouldn’t understand me because of my accent. Ethnic Russians in this part of the world weren’t accustomed to hearing foreigners speak their language.
At the first stall with fruit I said oringe instead of orange (in Russian the difference sounded even slighter) with the result being total incomprehension. The next two women laughed off my request and asked where I was born. A fourth woman complimented my Russian. She said I had a beautiful voice and gave me an apple for free. It was brown on the inside and inedible. I went to another stall down by the alley of vodka bars and tried to buy orange juice. All I could find was orange drink. The woman yelled that I was wasting her time; I’d asked for juice and then refused it. I thought it over and decided to pick this battle. “Drink and juice are different!” I explained with force. She yelled and I yelled back. Nobody in a crowd of a hundred turned to look. She said the equivalent of “take it or leave it,” and I left. Before exiting the bazaar I bought a hot dog. In Riscani hot dogs off the street were topped with dill, carrots, cabbage and mayonnaise. I convinced myself the vegetables on top were rich in vitamins.
I went for a walk instead of going home.
An hour later my body felt better. My joints no longer ached. But now my throat hurt whenever I swallowed. I’d probably breathed in too much cold air by the lake. In any case, I still needed vitamins. Before returning home I returned to the bazaar and bought orange drink from a different vendor, motioning with my pointed finger instead of speaking.
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What had changed in Riscani since the fall of the Soviet Union? A history text would mention the collapse of the farming collective, the breakdown of local government that led to widespread corruption, perhaps the cutting of the trade pathways that provided markets for the locally manufactured goods—cheese, wine and perfumes. In Moldova I observed the effects of Soviet collapse every day, but only understood the fragments of disrupted life as they affected my new family. Tima spoke frequently over vodka shots of longer workdays and fewer vacations; a decade had passed since he’d relaxed by the sea in Odessa. Tanya complained about the value of the family’s bread decreasing slowly every year; soon the people would expect bakers to give it away for free. And Natasha worried, with reason, that her education was far inferior to the quality of the common village schools her parents had passed through decades earlier.
But gloom did not permeate everything; the collapse had destroyed the compulsion to worship the state. Riscani now had a proper church—a gray, onion-topped, Orthodox Church—situated on the path leading to the bar on the lake. This church had been constructed before WWII. It had survived that conflict, only to be stripped of its icons, murals, priest, and renamed “The Museum of Atheism” during its time in the hands of the Soviet Union. Now the church had taken back its name. To this church Natasha took me to worship.
Teenage Natasha took off her Spain football sweatshirt and put on a sweater that hid her breasts. She borrowed a flat-soled pair of Mama Tanya’s shoes and wrapped a red shall around her hair. Papa Tima and Mama Tanya inspected her from their positions in bed, giving her tips as she dressed on how to look pious. They argued briefly about make-up, Natasha agreeing to forgo eyeliner.
Snow had fallen the previous night, but none had collected. The cold had now set in and most predicted it would last until June. The only people on the back streets of Riscani all walked in the same direction, toward the lake; all kept their hands in their pockets and elbows pressed against their sides, chins tucked to protect the eyes from the wind, frozen breath clouds exiting downward. I’d kept my vision on the heels of a man in front of me, and when he continued past the church, Natasha took my arm to correct my path and guide me toward the church gates. She gave two lei to a Roma boy with his hands cupped at the entrance. A line extended out the door, and I realized then that I’d be standing the entire time during this ceremony.
Before we entered the church Natasha turned to me and said, “Take off your hat.”
“I know,” I responded grumpily. Natasha brushed her hand over a wandering patch of my hair and patted down the rest. I hadn’t fully appreciated Natasha’s love for the Orthodox Church until this moment in the crowded antechamber. Natasha, the youngest in the family, the baby without Soviet memories, was the only one to publicly express her faith. She attended church, carried laminated saint cards, crossed herself when we encountered shrines while walking, passing her hands quickly over her chest in the double orthodox manner and kissing her thumb.
Inside, the space resembled an old school house suitable for twenty children. The warmth of the interior came from the parishioners. Fifty people stood together on a collection of thin carpets over wood floorboards. There were no chairs. Natasha stood with me for the first half hour, split her attention equally between the priest and me, and then worked her way through the clustered, big-boned, wool-draped worshipers to the front, where other members of the choir had collected.
A moment later the priest made his first pass through his congregation, swinging a brass cauldron that emitted smoke. An altar boy walked ahead with a large candle. Another altar boy trailed behind with another candle. The crowd parted to accommodate the priest, as they hadn’t for Natasha. They turned in place as flowers following the sun, never letting him see their backs. He spoke his chants in a booming voice in a language I didn’t recognize; it seemed ancient, a mix of Russian and Latin. Women held hands up as he passed as though to feel the cloth of his white gown, though no one actually touched him. As he passed by we briefly made eye contact, and in that moment I was certain he knew who I was; his eyes changed to express recognition, surprised and friendly. He continued his pass, never interrupting his chant.
I unzipped my coat and found a place where I could stand away from the overwhelming heat. I shifted my weight from leg to leg. I recognized the moment in the chanting when the language doubled back on itself and became a repetition. I watched as women and men took turns kissing portraits of the saints framed in gold on the wall.
Three hours passed. The priest made several passes. Worshipers had come and gone, but most had stayed the duration as I had.
At the end, when the chanting stopped, everyone formed a line and took turns kissing a large silver cross the priest extended from his hand. I observed from the back as the priest blessed Natasha and she kissed the cross.
The ceremony ended. All the saints on the walls had been kissed, but people remained because the priest had not yet removed his tall white hat. He waved from his pulpit; someone had forgotten something. He waved to a person at the back door. I turned and saw several worshipers frozen in place, pointing among themselves, not sure which person he was trying to reach. Finally he sent the second altar boy to the back. The boy pointed to each parishioner, passing from one to another, waiting for the priest to nod his head. The priest finally waved the boy back and whispered something into his ear; then the boy came directly to me.
“The priest wants to bless you,” he said.
I looked to the priest and pointed to my chest.
“Yes,” he nodded. “You.”
Everyone watched as I approached. The priest put his hand over his heart and bowed once I arrived; I mimicked him. He smiled. He knew the words he wished to speak, but didn’t wish to waste them on deaf ears. He pulled the altar boy by the sleeve and asked him to translate. The boy protested, “You know I don’t speak English well, Papa.” Natasha rescued this boy by saying, “Speak to him. He understands Russian.” The priest smiled again. Sweat beaded on his forehead from the physical exertion of his service. In a voice heavily accented with Romanian, the priest thanked me for worshiping, for respecting other traditions, for taking advantage of the brotherhood of Christianity.
A mummer filled the room behind me: “Katólik,” they said. “The American is katolícheski.” Then the churchgoers stood without making noise, perhaps not even breathing, as the Priest talked with the American.
“I’ve wanted to tell you for quite some time,” he began. “I really like your beard.”
This was a joke; people laughed.
I thanked him. He spoke quickly and I understood every other word. He asked if it was true I planned to visit Egypt some day—he glanced at Natasha, who’d probably told him every idea she’d ever heard me speak—and then he recommended that I climb Mt. Sinai, as he’d heard good things. He asked about priestly issues in America; he asked if I was aware of gay marriage, and had I ever been to Oregon because that’s where it was happening.
I said his sons all seemed hard workers at the school, and all very bright.
He smiled broadly and grabbed my shoulder. He said something completely unintelligible, but in quite a flattering tone. After an awkward silence it seemed he wanted a response, so in polite, formal Russian I said, “Right back at you.”
He scrunched his eyebrows together. Someone in the background stifled a giggle.
“Do you know what I just said?” he asked.
I admitted that I hadn’t.
“I just blessed you,” he explained. “You can’t bless me back.”
No longer able to contain their laughter, a pair of women ran out of the church, toward the bazaar, surely to inform the world.
“May health and happiness pursue you,” continued the priest. “Traveling is good. One learns that God’s children fight over similarities, not differences.” I looked at the silver cross in his right hand, held against his breast. He followed my eyes and then extended the cross. I kissed it at the bottom, where other lips hadn’t left marks, and the priest smiled. He snapped his fingers and the alter boy gave me a bag with Christmas candies, biscuits and a small orange. The priest placed his hand over his heart and bowed a final time. I felt a hand take my elbow; Natasha motioned for me to follow her to the door.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” she said. “I will stay with the choir and sing until dawn.”
We’d arrived just before eleven and now it was just past two in the afternoon. She saw that I questioned her sanity. “It’s a tradition,” said explained in English.
“Okay,” I said. “Until tomorrow.”
The priest waved goodbye from his pulpit and I instinctively, stupidly, flashed him a peace sign. He mimicked me, and he and many others laughed.
Outside I felt energized. More blood returned to my legs with every step. The wind had relaxed enough for me to raise my chin and look forward. Instead of returning home directly I walked to the lake. The Roma boy who’d begged two lei from Natasha stood far down on the sloping dam near the artificial shoreline, spitting sunflower seeds into the water. The wind picked up. I buried my head down into my coat and returned home.
Upon entering Papa Tima spoke in a loud voice to Mama Tanya. They were both in the kitchen. He wanted me to hear but pretended I wasn’t there.
“Did you hear the joke about the Priest and the American?” he asked Tanya. She started laughing and had to muffle her laughter with a dishrag pressed against her mouth.
“‘Bless you, my son,’ says the priest.”
“‘No father,’ interrupts the American. ‘Bless you!’”
Tima pounded the table with his flat palm as he erupted with laughter. Tanya removed the dishrag from her mouth and joined him at full volume.
How could they have known so quickly?
I entered the kitchen smiling and accepted a plate of jam pastries. We paused in thought, thee shots of vodka elevated in our hands, as we struggled to think of something new we’d never before toasted. After a moment we settled, like always, on health and happiness.