It was by mistake that I came to live at 81 on Lenin Boulevard. Only after I arrived in Nizhny Novgorod did I learn that the friend with whom I had planned to lodge with for the semester had been kicked out of his mother’s apartment. Luckily it didn’t take long to find a room to rent in a communal apartment. The monthly charge was twenty dollars, plus utilities. There was no contract. I could stay as long as I wanted. The room would eventually be furnished, but I would have to wait three weeks for anything more than a cot and a table already there.
“The neighbors aren’t Russians,” The landlord whispered to me, ”They are Tarter Muslims. No Russian wants to live with them. That’s why the rent is so low.”
“Perfect,” I answered with a hint of melodrama, “I am an American Mormon. No Russians want to live with me either.”
Seeing I had no other place to hang my fur hat, I took the cold, dirty room and did my best to make it home.
The neighbors were as distrustful of me and as I was supposed to be of them. They made a production of dead bolting the door of their bedroom each night. The two women; Natasha, who I quickly learned to call ”Babushka,” was nearly seventy years old and her niece Raiya, in her early forties shared one room, the same size as the one I moved into. After a week of living around each other, proximity forced us into a conversation over our separate dinners on a very cold January night, melting the ice inside the apartment as the snow piled up outside.
The kitchen was very basic, and the appliances belonged to my neighbors. Only the sink and the hot water heater were communal. I was allowed to use their stove, but the oven was not to be lit. With large holes in the heating chamber the risk of a gas explosion was too great to ever use it again. There were no cupboards or drawers that I could use, so I hung my fry pan, cutting board and a cutting knife from nails in the wall. A half size refrigerator doubled as a preparation counter.
There were many evenings that we sat on stools around the refrigerator, sampling the ingenious cooking that came out of my single frying pan. We held irregular communal dinner parties when I brought home a piece of good beef or chicken. They boiled the potatoes and fried the onions while I roasted the meat in butter and garlic, in a makeshift roaster; my fry pan, their pot. We spent many cold evenings in deep conversation in that kitchen long after the washing up had been done and the dishes set out to dry, about Russia, the war, America and our families.
The bathroom was big enough for just a bathtub and a washbasin. A scratchy mirror and a naked light bulb hung from the wall and ceiling respectively. My housemates at first thought me to be obsessive about bathing because I took baths every morning and some days after school, on the really bone chilling days. Once I volunteered to pay the water and gas bill for the whole apartment of three dollars per month, they too started bathing each day. My contribution to apartment expenses allowed us to buy things they hadn’t had in some time; light bulbs in the hallway; washing detergents for clothes; sponges and towels for washing dishes; a new broom and dustpan. After a few weeks, they confessed that they even felt safer in their home with me there.
Babushka had never married. Her fiance was a soldier in the Great Patriotic War in the battle of Smolensk. He never came home. After the war, there was a shortage of young men to marry. She had no husband and no children to look after her; only a shrinking pension from the military factory where she has worked for over forty years. Many weekend mornings we went together to the market where I would carry her groceries for her as she inspected apples and cabbages. She began to call me “golden boy” and let people be believe that I was her grandson when we went out together.
On (very) cold nights, before bed, I would soak my joints in a hot bath while I listened to music. Many times, when I emerged from my makeshift sauna, I found my neighbors sitting in kitchen listening along to the American folk music echoing from the bathroom. Nancy Griffith became their favorite because of her sweet voice and simple melodies. One night this sharing of music prompted Babuhska to teach me a traditional wedding song of the Tatars, and then the dance too! Had anybody been watching through the window, they would have thought us all drunk, with me in my bathrobe and slippers, jumping and bounding through the kitchen, twirling my towel above my head. I have since forgotten the dance, but I will never forget the bridges of culture that were all crossed in that kitchen.
The equivalent of Mother’s Day is celebrated in Russia on the eighth of March. Women of all ages, mothers or not, stroll in the parks, the city center or by the river with their families, carrying a mandatory bouquet flowers. It is the sacred duty of any living man or boy with a sister, mother, aunt, wife, grandmother or daughter to provide these flowers. As a foreigner I was not exempt from this holiday. I too was prepared to greet the local women in my life with flowers for my girlfriend, and her mother. As I was preparing to go for brunch at their apartment on that brilliant March morning, it dawned on me that Babushka didn’t have anybody to bring her flowers. The children who visited the apartment were Raiya’s nephew and niece, through marriage. They were not Babushka’s family.
I slipped quietly out the front door and jogged up to the metro station. As I expected, I found the flower scalpers there selling modest bouquets for exorbitant prices; exploiting the blockheads too drunk to buy flowers for their wives the night before. I paid the equivalent of twenty dollars for a bouquet of six roses and jogged home.
I found Babushka cooking her breakfast in the kitchen, dressed in her usual gray wool sweater and head scarf. She glanced at the roses and smiled.
“Good choice. The ladies will be delighted with those,” she said.
I shook my head and said quietly, “I have other flowers for them.”
I laid the roses in Babushka’s arms, congratulated her with the holiday and gave her a kiss on the cheek. She stood speechless, gazing at the roses, crying tears of joy. For the first time in fifty-two years, since before the war from which her father and fiance never returned, Natasha put on her Sunday best and went together with her niece to the family celebration, carrying what was probably the most expensive bouquet the family saw that year.
When the time drew closer for me to leave, to return to the USA, I suggested that we take a group photo. The ladies dressed themselves up in their finest clothes; did their hair and faces and even put on heels. Babushka wore a headscarf that I had never seen before, not even on Women’s Day. It was a brilliant but dark red, with paisley designs in green and blue. I hadn’t expected a simple photo shoot in the kitchen to be such an occasion, but the prospect of having their photo taken was a rare treat. Using the self-timer on my camera, we tried to make it formal photo with serious, sober faces while we waited for the shutter to snap. The ladies were so giddy that they couldn’t help themselves but to laugh and smile and wiggle with excitement. I ordered a copy of the photo for each of them. They were surprised, like children on Christmas morning, that the photograph was in color.
Once my housemates figured out that I was preparing to leave at the end of the school year, they were up in arms. They did all they could to convince me to stay for the next academic year. On the morning of my departure I tried to give my cassette player to Raiya as I was packing up the last of my things. Even then she still refused to accept it. She insisted that she would look after it while I was away for the summer and would give everything back when I returned in September. We shook hands and agreed to keep the option open.
Our final farewell was filled with Babushka’s tears. We laughed about how scared they were of ‘the American” on the first night I slept in the apartment. Natasha kissed me repeatedly on both cheeks, refusing to let me go. I promised I would write. The landlord arrived to collect the back rent and drive me to the station.
As the little car pulled away from the apartment building, kicking up dust from the dirt lane, I hung out the window waving behind me. Babushka chased after the car waving and shouting, “Goodbye, golden boy! Come back soon, golden boy!”
Did you enjoy this story? Watch for it and others like it in V M Karren’s short story anthology: The Tales of a Fly-By-Night. Click on the image below to read more: