The Beginning

I wake up at eight a.m. On the sixteenth floor every day at eight a.m. Sorokin sneezes. After that, on the fifteenth floor, Aunt Masha falls out of bed.

I wake up because I live on the fourteenth floor and hear both Sorokin sneezing and Aunt Masha falling. I hear them distinctly, sometimes even wake anticipating the sounds, nervous if they are late.

And so, I finally hear a loud sneeze that resembles the blast of an antipersonnel shell, followed by the dull thud of Aunt Masha's body and a muffled:

—Oh, shoo-oot!

I always hear a whisper next door and other sounds I shouldn't be listening to. My hearing is a hundred and eighty percent. That is, in my left ear, because my right has only twenty. My left ear,to be exact, compensates for the right. Simple arithmetic.

My partial deafness helped me to mature sexually. When I was a child, the house we lived in underwent a major renovation. A gaping hole in the ceiling led to the neighbor's bedroom. Each evening, holding my breath, I'd listen to the even creaking of the neighbor's bed and then a muffled, male voice exhaling:

—Honey . . .

For many years my sister and I played the "Honey" game, playing tricks on each other.

—Honey!—I yelled, pouring icy water down my sister's collar . . .

I live in a big apartment. Actually, it was not so big at first, but then, thanks to Steven, it got bigger. Steven is practical, though he isn't an American. He thinks everything around should benefit people. He was the first to learn that my next-door neighbors intended to sell their apartment, and bought it. The apartment cost a lot, but Steven managed to buy it on credit.

It seems to me that buying on credit is every foreigner's goal in life.

In our country, foreigners were always loved and shown preference. When I cross our yard, I feel the neighbors staring at me and realize that I'm almost a foreigner too, thanks to Steven. Janitors and watchmen greet me. The cleaning woman is interested in my health. Plumbers look at me with respect and repair my faucets, and never dare overcharge me. I even feel awkward paying them with rubles.

Now I have two baths, two toilets, and two kitchens that share a common wall. Take down the wall and you get one huge kitchen. But for some reason, we don't, and so, to get from one kitchen to the other, we have to cross to the landing. The refrigerator is in one apartment, the range in the other. We use one apartment to live in, and the other, for a sexual refuge.

At eight-thirty I take the elevator to walk my dog. I join Sorokin and Aunt Masha at my floor. In the morning, Sorokin jogs around the Sheremetyev estate, while Aunt Masha in the yard feeds the local tomcats. Undisturbed, we descend to the first floor. Sorokin jogs toward the park, and Aunt Masha complains:

—Who in the world sneezes that loud in our building? Today I fell out of bed again.

Sorokin works on strengthening the Department of Defense, hopefully our defense. And therefore he's shrouded in mystery. They won't let him leave the country for fear he'd be kidnapped. But everyone in our building knows that he explodes rockets in space. Some think they are ballistic. Tanya, Sorokin's wife, won't let him drink, protecting the clarity of his mind, a font of state secrets. He shows up at my place evenings because he feels at home here.

I don't drink, but I like having a wide variety of drinks in my refrigerator. My refrigerator has always drawn friends who drink. In the nearby store, where I replenish my stock of liquor almost every day, I'm taken for an alcoholic.

At 6:00 p.m. Sorokin shows up and asks cautiously:

—Do you have any beer? Cold? To cool me off a bit . . .

—Sure, I answer. And produce a bottle of brandy.

Sorokin is fifty-four. He's a bit shorter than I am; gray hairs stick out of his nose. They say he's a general, though to me he looks more like a goblin. Sometimes he exclaims:

—What did I live for?!

—But he can't find an answer and continues to "cool off" with the help of the brandy. He drinks almost like a professional, because he doesn't get drunk.

When he first met Steven in my apartment, he became shy and didn't utter a world all evening. But toward the end of supper he loosened up, and for some reason explained how our anti-aircraft defense system works. He even drew a diagram. Steven listened attentively, nodded, and didn't understand a thing. Sorokin kept on explaining and became annoyed . . .

Finally Steven said:

—Fuck it.

—You're a nice guy for a foreigner! Sorokin rejoiced.

In fact after four years in Moscow Steven wasn't a foreigner any more. We had dreamed of moving to Canada for four years. And for four years we hadn't.

At first when we were invited places, Steven would buy flowers for the hostess and rush to the living room. Now he brings two bottles of vodka and heads for the kitchen. He learned how to swear in Russian and eats salad from an aluminum bowl. In Canada he never eats the same dish twice. In Moscow he reheats yesterday's omelet. The only thing he still does as a foreigner is buy useful utensils. That's why both my kitchens are stuffed with all sorts of nonsense: mixers, coffee grinders and meat-slicers. But I keep cutting sausage with a knife.

That's probably the reason we still live in Moscow.

—Holy Cow! yells Agafonova. —What a treasure! It's a gift of fate. Don't be a fool—go to Canada!

I keep quiet because it's pointless to argue. Anyway, she will say I'm showing off. But it's just that I simply stay here. I don't know why myself. Probably because I love my sofa more than anything in the world.

My sofa is my Russia.

—Canada has the best hotels for dogs in the world! Agafonova declares authoritatively. —Even better than in America,—she says, breathing heavily, there's nothing better in the world than in America.

Agafonova and I studied at the same university; she roomed in the dormitory and lived on processed cheese. Then, she couldn't endure it any longer and married a citizen of the island of Mauritius. However, I don't even know if there is such a citizenship. But, one way or another, she got married there.

—And what if he divorces you? What will you eat there?—Agafonova was asked before she left.

—Processed cheese,—answered Agafonova and flew off to Mauritius. But six months later, she divorced and decided to come back.

—What will you eat there?—asked her ex-husband, the citizen of Mauritius.

—Processed cheese, —answered Agafonova, patriotically, and flew back to Moscow. Meanwhile, processed cheese disappeared in Russia, due to perestroika. And Agafonova was at a loss for the first time in her life.

—In Canada is the world's best toilet paper!—shouted Agafonova, sitting in my kitchen,—better than in America.

—There they have the best Eskimos—I sighed,—I just can't make up my mind,—you have to start somewhere,—see?

But Agafonova didn't see.

Today Sorokin came earlier than usual and, still at the door, asked:

—Any beer?

—Sure, —I answered, placing a bottle of brandy on the table.

—No, no—Sorokin refused—Tanya will hit the ceiling. Let's stick to beer.

His face expressed a delusion of sober grandeur.

—I'll have to go to the refrigerator,—I said.

And so we went to the neighboring apartment. When Steven isn't in Moscow, my daughter uses the apartment for her sexual activities. Still at the door, I heard her whisper, and froze:

—We'll talk to my mom . . . nothing terrible has happened . . . we should tell her, I think . . .

I turned pale and imagined myself a grandmother. We took some beer from the refrigerator and went back. Sorokin asked:

—What's the matter with you? You're so pale!

—No wonder—I sighed, and stopped talking because my daughter and her boyfriend, Serezha, silently made their appearance.

—Ma,—Ksyusha said.

—Maybe, not in front of everyone?—I asked, avoiding her eyes.

—What's the problem? We're all friends here—Ksyusha was surprised,—right, Uncle Valera?

—Of course,—Sorokin almost choked.

—Well, since we're all friends . . . —I turned to my daughter, but it was Sergei who started speaking.

—You see,—he said—the thing is . . .

—I see,—I nodded,—spit it out, when are you due? What are your plans?

—Due?—Sergei was surprised.

—What do you mean, "due"?—Ksyusha asked.

—Date for your "news."

—Two days,—Ksyusha informed us.

—It's like the joke where—Sorokin cheered—a girl on the bus asked the passengers to give up their seats since for two hours she's been pregnant . . . He saw my expression and clammed up.

—I've been drafted,—Sergei explained,—I'm fed up paying bribes.

It was a load off my mind.

—What can be done—?I asked a rhetorical question.

—Maybe seek asylum? Political?—Sergei ventured.

Sorokin started coughing, snorting beer from his nose.

—Seek it, I said, but where? In our district the only embassy is Buryatya's. I have no idea if they can grant it or not.

—They can't,—Sorokin wiped his tears and turned to the brandy,—Buryatya is Russia. Same laws. Why should they have an embassy, I wonder?—he mused.

—You see,—I said to Sergei.

—I'm serious—,answered Sergei,—let's go to the American embassy and ask.

—Why do you need me?

—You'll be my interpreter . . .

—They speak Russian there; they know no one knows the language here.

—But we'll surprise them,—insisted Sergei.

—So let's go,—Sorokin unexpectedly suggested, pouring himself another,—We should both help the guy and surprise the embassy.

I don't get how our people end up in America. It looks like all those who want to emigrate have been standing in line at the embassy since the seventies. They even read the same books, by Brodsky and Zinov'ev.

We moved closer.

—Get in line—some guy got nervous.

—We only have a question,—explained Sergei.

—Everyone here only has a question,—the same comrade went on.

—But you're here for emigration,—explained Sergei.

—And what are you here for?—the same guy asked, with interest.

—We want asylum. Political,—Sorokin broke in, unexpectedly and loudly.

The line stared at us. The police started moving.

—And you, have you spent time?—a guy with experience asked.

—No,—Sorokin was at a loss.

—Well, first spend the time, and then come back.

—Spend it where?—Sorokin didn't understand.

—In jail, comrade,—a man with sidelocks joined the conversation.

—Why should I spend time in jail?—Sorokin was hurt.

—And what did you expect?—asked a young guy.

I thought I saw a small volume of Marx in his hands.

—You see,—I began to explain,—our relative doesn't want to serve, so every year he has to pay the military registration office a ton of money. We thought, maybe they'd grant him asylum?

—They won't,—said the guy,—I know it for a fact.

—But they grant it to some?

—There is a possibility,—another guy joined the conversation—let him piss on the mausoleum.

—That won't work—a man in a hat objected with utter seriousness.

—Why is that?—the guy was outraged.

—They'll treat it as a misdemeanor—fifteen days. There's nothing political about it.

—What do you mean, nothing political!—a stout woman approached us—how come nothing political? When it concerns the mausoleum, it's political!

—But pissing on the mausoleum is a misdemeanor!—the one in the hat kept pressing,—now, if he pissed on Lenin himself . . .

—You better ask the pigs, why argue? No point to it—the little volume of Marx in the guy's hand turned out to be Marquez. I calmed down.

The pigs got nervous.

—Here's my advice—said the man in the hat—buy him a tour to Mexico and let him cross the USA border.

—And then? sarcastically asked the stout woman.

—And then,—explained the man in the hat—he'll be noticed and arrested. He'll get SSI until the trial, and after that, he'll either be deported or allowed to stay in America.

—That won't work either—the guy with Marquez under his arm joined in—he'd have to run back and forth across the border for six months before they noticed him.

—They'd notice immediately,—someone said.

—Well, not immediately—the guy raised his voice—they generally don't monitor the border.

—What the hell do you know about their borders, you jerk?—howled someone.

—Let's get out of here—suggested Sergei.

We stopped at the Australian embassy, but stayed in the car quietly smoking, not daring to go out, because we didn't know what to do next.

—Mom, ask the police—Ksyusha popped up,—they certainly know all the laws here.

—Of course they do—agreed Sorokin—all the laws. —A half-empty bottle of brandy materialized in his hands and immediately vanished. Or maybe I just thought so.

—Mom, ask—whined Ksyusha.

—But why "Mom"?—I flared up—who needs asylum? You or me?

—Well, you're the one who knows how to talk with people,—flattered Ksyusha.

I lit up another cigarette.

—Let's go all together,—suggested Sorokin.

We got out of the car. One of the policemen looked at us and shouted:

—We don't accept visitors today!

I approached him.

—Maybe there's some window here, something like "information"?

—No,—the policeman shook his head—no such windows. You're here for a visa?

—Well, no,—I mumbled—we have questions . . .

—Delicate,—Sorokin specified, for no reason.

The policeman looked at us with some surprise. I noticed that Ksyusha and Sergei kept a safe distance.

—No visitors,—the policeman repeated.

A man in a suit came out from the embassy and lit up a cigarette.

—Can I ask him?

—What?—the policeman was surprised.

—It'll just take a second.

—Yes means yes! No means no,—Sorokin explained.

The policemen exchanged glances. I approached the gate and shouted:

—Excuse me Sir . . .

"Sir" averted his eyes, but didn't turn.

—Who does he think he is?—Sorokin grew bolder.

—As a matter of fact, he's the First Secretary,—the policeman's smile was restrained.

—Some shit,—unexpectedly reacted Sorokin, evidently, hearing only "secretary," and then he addressed me and ordered:—repeat, and louder . . .

—Citizens . . . —the policeman began.

—Wait, —Sorokin waived him off.

—Excuse me, sir! —I shouted through the grill.

The first secretary looked in my direction.

—Do you grant asylum to draftees?—I shouted.

Ksyusha and Sergei pretended to be attentively reading a poster advertising Dima Malikov.

—"Sorry"— in English,—the first secretary shook his head.

—What "Sorry"! Ask him again! In English this time! Maybe he didn't understand,—Sorokin worked himself up.

The policemen didn't know what to do. Ksyusha and Sergei were slowly walking down the alley. The first secretary placed his hand on the doorknob.

—I'm calling for reinforcements,—the policeman cautiously threatened.

—Be human, keep out of it!—Sorokin flared up.

—The policeman turned on his walkie-talkie.

—Sir!—I yelled in English—the whole world is outraged by the unjust war Russia wages in the Chechen Republic. This young man . . . —I pointed in the direction of Sergei.

The first secretary looked at Sorokin with interest. Sorokin was embarrassed and blushed.

I went on:

—This young man is refusing to participate in military actions and asks to be granted political asylum!

—In your peace-loving country—, prompted Sorokin.

The first secretary disappeared beyond the door of the embassy.

—Listen, Lady—the policeman almost touched me—cut it out! I've called for help.

—Let's beat it! ordered General Sorokin.

Back home, we sat quietly in the kitchen. Sorokin had almost finished off the brandy. Ksyusha sulked. Sergei sighed.

—But why are you sighing, I shouted,—you always want me to come up with something? I work for you! I feed and dress you. I run from embassy to embassy for you. Still, I'm guilty. You don't like it? Join the army. Or think for yourself. You're a big boy; can't you dodge the draft? You can all go to hell! I'm leaving for Canada! Die of hunger, for all I care.

Everyone exchanged glances.

—A good idea, Sorokin said unexpectedly.

Two months later we watched a lovely plane ascend into the heavens, carrying our Sergei to ecologically pure Canada.

Steven agreed to meet Sergei at the airport.

—Actually, I'd rather meet you, said Steven by phone.

—You have to start somewhere, I answered.

The plane became a silvery dot.

—Oh, well, we've also started—Ksyusha said quietly, and began to cry.

We stood for a few seconds more and moved slowly toward the exit.

Translation copyright 2007 Dinara Georgeoliani and Mark Halperin. All rights reserved.