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Cape Fear Voices/The Teen Scene

Cape Fear Voices/The Teen Scene

Cape Fear Voices/The Teen Scene

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Part I: Pravda (Truth)

“Are you sure it’s okay, Monique? I thought we needed permission from the authorities to travel outside Moscow’s city limits.” Monique and I were suitemates on a study abroad program at Moscow State University. Our four-month stay was almost over, and she was eager to visit relatives she had outside Kyiv. Convinced it would be fun to see another Soviet republic, I agreed to go along. Five years my senior, Monique spoke French, Russian, and a smattering of Ukraine. She knew how to work the system, and I trusted her advice. 

“It’s all arranged, Janet,” she assured me. “I’ve taken care of everything. Just remember your passport and those strips of Pravda.” We didn’t go anywhere without our student passports, so that part of her advice was gratuitous. But Pravda, the official newspaper of the Soviet Union, was our toilet paper. And you never knew when or where you would need toilet paper. 

When we left the following morning, it was still dark outside. Winter was setting in, and the few trees sprinkled around the Stalinist-style cement block buildings had already lost their leaves. Lodged against the train window, I took in the drab suburb stations, their walls plastered with posters of Comrade Brezhnev. As the distance between stops increased, I glimpsed a man or woman bent over in ochre fields, harvesting their crops. What a hard and monotonous life! 

We had to change trains at least three times, and at each transfer station, Monique would converse (and sometimes flirt) with the conductors so we would make our connections without a hitch. After one officious bureaucrat scrutinized my passport and appeared ready to escort us off the train, Monique went into a lengthy discourse, dramatically wiping a tear from her cheek. My stomach was in knots, but she patted my lap, an indication she had things under control. Sure enough, the conductor handed back our papers with a grunt, and the train lurched forward.

After traveling most of the day, we disembarked at a small station on the outskirts of Kyiv. Monique’s Uncle Vanya greeted us with flowers. Here was the niece from America! I tried to follow the animated conversation taking place in the car’s front seat, but the pace of discourse and use of idiomatic expressions left me in the dark. Periodically, Uncle Vanya glanced into the rearview mirror, smiled, and threw out an English phrase for my benefit. I smiled back, relieved that I could finally let down my guard.

Upon arrival at the family apartment, a young man was working on a truck. “This is Sasha,” Uncle Vanya said as Monique embraced her cousin. “He recently finished his military duty. Now he fixes cars.” Uncle Vanya put his arm around his nephew’s shoulder and pulled him close. “Sasha is back and safe with his family again.” I nodded my understanding; a two-year conscription was mandatory for all male citizens between 18 and 27. Sasha was tan, fit, and handsome. Not a bad catch for some lucky woman!

As we brought our things upstairs, Monique informed me of the weekend’s plans. “We will sleep here at my uncle’s apartment tonight, then travel to the countryside to meet the rest of my extended family. My grandmother is preparing a big celebratory lunch.” Although I felt like an interloper, crashing a party in honor of my friend, Monique reassured me. “They already consider you family.” 

When I asked to use the bathroom, Uncle Vanya led me back to the landing and pointed to a closed door. Hanging on the walls inside were five toilet seats, each marked with an apartment number. Okay, so which is theirs? Not wanting to go back and ask, I picked the one that looked the cleanest, placed it over the naked bowl, and sat down. Thankfully, there was a roll of coarse toilet paper on the floor, which saved me further embarrassment since I had left the strips of Pravda in my suitcase. I tried to relax, but you can’t linger in a communal bathroom. Listening intently for any noise outside, I did my business and slipped out. 

(To be continued)

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