I Grew Dumb in Russia

I grew dumb in Russia. Packs of dogs roamed the streets at night searching for warm meats and left over salty bread and I hurried into the empty doorways of storefronts, and held my breath until they scurried past. I listened to their lonely barks as I made my way home after them wishing for answers to the important questions I never seemed to ask.

There were things I left behind with men in the back seats of cars and things I wanted from the men in the front seats of cars, but I was afraid to ask and none of them made any difference in my life except I grew older and seemed to lack the wisdom that came with age.

I had heard of a man with missing front teeth who read fortunes with flowers for not that many rubles and I went to him to see if he might give me some direction in my life. But what to do with a life isn’t a question a tulip or the petals of a rose can answer. Besides, I couldn’t concentrate on what he was saying because when I’d try, I’d only see the darkness in his mouth where his teeth should have been in his smile and his responses never made much sense.

Watch where three swans fly. There was always something about flight. And once, he said, don’t take the train into the city for the next six months. It’s not safe. Or: When you open a door, listen to the words you hear and that’s your answer. But when I’d open a door and listen, I’d hear only stupid things like: Double yolk eggs are more expensive. Or: Moscow cat, brush your hair.

I grew dumb in Russia. There were people I hung around with who laughed and sang in the streets but carried knives and secrets and their faces were scarred along with their hearts. I felt their shadowy breath following me even when I was alone in any room and I grew dumb. Some mornings, after being out all night, I’d go wait on the train station platform with the commuters and imagine myself boarding one of the trains with them. It didn’t matter to me where it might be headed, only that it was headed away, away, away. But I never got on. Instead, I’d watch the people and trains leave and the sun rise to throw a bright scarf of pink and orange over the smoke and grime and for a few minutes I’d believe in the world and even become hopeful myself. But then another train whistle would sound and startle me from my silly revelries. The train station bathrooms were damp and sexual places and I grew dumb in Russia.

There were long evenings I spent playing video games, smoking cigarettes, chewing ice or cherry gum to keep myself from doing certain things while I made promises I already knew I would never keep. As the nights became months and I wandered the streets, I felt the coming winter with its cold, wet hands and I saw old newspapers blowing along the streets saying nothing, I shivered and tried to remember what the fortune teller’s tulips had forewarned about this time in my life, but nothing came to me. One night, I thought I saw my grandmother walking towards me with her arms outstretched as if to hug me, but her feet were bare and because I knew she would never lose or misplace her shoes, I knew it was only a dream, a hallucination.

I grew dumb in Russia.