Friday, June 17, 2016

Red Ticket: Moving Day

“If I jumped from this height, I’d definitely hurt myself.” It was the third time in an hour I’d had this thought, and I looked up at the vapid Orlando sky to dispel it as I rubbed my palms on the thighs of my jeans.

Moving to Moscow had seemed like a fantastic idea when I’d been stuck dusting Gator souvenirs back at the Florida Bookstore. But now that it was here, I was scared. I’d never even seen snow before, and now I was moving to Russia? In January? Also, I’d been to Russia, and knew that unexpected things happened there all the time. That was part of the allure when I thought about it in Gainesville. But I wasn’t in Gainesville any more. I was in Orlando, waiting to go to the airport. It looked like I was really going to do this thing.

I leaned on the railing of the hotel balcony, peering at the reedy man-made pond 15 stories below. The sun glinted off the giant swans on the resort across the way, extruded plastic winking.

Unable to bear the pastel hotel room, our family fled to a nearby Shoney’s. We stared at each other grimly, inserting French fries into our cottony mouths. I looked around the restaurant at the dusty hanging baskets, the steaming breakfast bar, the sunburned tourists sticking to their booths as they shoveled in biscuits and gravy. I became maudlin; sentimental, the way people in books do before setting off on epic journeys. What was I doing? How could I leave all this behind?

One of my best friends, Jeff Totty,
visiting me the day before I left.
I'm on my way to get The Perm. 
The day before, I’d been so antsy and nervous that my mother gave me $50 and sent me to the hair salon. “Go get a perm!” she commanded, “It’ll take three hours.”

“Great idea!” I thought, forgetting in my agitated state that I’d always considered permanents a Very Bad Idea. I went as if sleepwalking to Shear Pleasure, a salon sandwiched in between a shoe repair store and a desultory Orange Julius in the deserted local mall. Flopped down in the chair and asked for $50 worth of permanent – I didn’t much care what kind. The stylist lifted pieces of my nearly waist-length hair and asked sympathetically, “Time for a change?”

“Well, I’m moving tomorrow,” I said, and instantly regretted it. People reacted in all kinds of ways when I told them I was moving to the lair of our former enemy by myself in the middle of winter, but few of them were very affirming.

“Oh, how exciting!” she crowed, plucking at her appliqued sweatshirt. “Where to?” Conversation underway, she began wrapping my hair around tiny pink rollers.

“To Russia.” I said.

“Aw honey, it must seem like a long way away. But wherever you’re going it can’t be that bad!” She dowsed me with chemicals and exiled me to a hairdryer. When I emerged one hour later, the stylist reflexively touched her own frosted bangs.

"Oh my," said the stylist. 
“Oh my,” she said. I looked in the mirror. My hair was enormous. Ten thousand frizzy spirals competed for space on my small head, blowing and shifting in the non-existent breeze. I paid the frightened stylist and silently thanked my mother. Suddenly, leaving the country seemed like a pretty good option.

Fourteen hours and a plane change later, we bumped through the snow to rest on a Moscow runway. I shuffled through customs and met Sergei, my pre-arranged ride from the airport.

“Your bag, it is missing,” he said by way of greeting. Relieved not to have to stand in another line, I followed him to his car. It was 4:30 p.m., and already fully dark. We drove in silence with the windows rolled up, globs of snow flashing in the headlights.

He looked at me suddenly, arching his eyebrow. “There is bad smell,” he declared.

“Oh.” I rolled my eyes, embarrassed. He was right. The smell of chemicals coming from my hair was still pretty strong. “Permanent,” I said, pointing to my head.

“Maybe you see doctor,” advised Sergei. “Who knows? It might go away.”

The dorm.
Sergei dropped me off at my new home, a gray concrete dormitory located on the howling outskirts of the city. I collected my key from a woman in the lobby, and went up to my room. Unpacked my carry-on luggage and spent some time arranging the contents: 3 small cans of tuna fish, a change of clothing, a giant bag of condoms, a toothbrush. My Katzner’s Russian-English dictionary, a spiral notebook, and a bouquet of ball-point pens. I fished out a picture of my mother posing with my grandparents and another of Henry, the Boy I Left Behind, and propped them against the Kruschev-era desk lamp. Then I sat on the narrow bed and stared at the violently red astroturf covering the floor until it was time to go to sleep.

Hours later, unable to sleep from jet lag, I got up and opened the room’s massive double-paned window. I sat on the sill with my legs dangling out, smoking and watching Moscow appear and disappear behind blowing sheets of snow. Twenty-three stories below, an official-looking van crept through the empty streets, a nest of gray megaphones bristling from its roof. In the white night silence a cloud of noise traveled with the van, a scratchy male voice repeating a message as it progressed from street to street. When it finally passed by my building, the message floated up to me.

“Emergency!” said the man in the van, “There is a gas leak! Everyone must extinguish their cigarettes now!”

The van continued its slow tour through the streets, the man’s voice bouncing off the sleeping buildings. I smoked my cigarette and wondered what kind of country I’d come to.


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