For my mother,
who wasn’t afraid of anything
IN MOSCOW I was always cold. I suppose that’s what Russia is known for. Winter. But it is winter to a degree I could not have imagined before I moved there. Winter not of the pristine, romantic Doctor Zhivago variety but a season so insistent and hateful that all hope freezes with your toes. The snow is cleared away too quickly to soften the city, so the streets are slushy with resentment. And I felt like the other young women trudging through that slush: sullen and tired, with a bluish tint to the skin below the eyes that suggests insomnia or malnutrition or a hangover. Or all of the above. Every day brought news of a drunk who froze to death. I saw one: slumped over on a bench on Tverskoy Boulevard with a bottle between his legs and icicles decorating his fingers. Distilled into something so pure and solid that I didn’t recognize it as death until I got up close. The babushka next to me summoned the police.
I cracked under the weight of the cold. My only recourse was to eat. I inhaled entire packages of English tea biscuits in one sitting. They came stacked in a tube, and when I found myself halfway through one, I decided I might as well finish it. I polished off a whole tube every night after work and then pinched the extra flesh around my hips in the bathtub and thought, At least I’m warm.
It was 1996. At the English-language newspaper where I worked, the other expats were always joking. Russia, with all its quirks, was funny. There was a sign at Sheremetyevo Airport, perched at the entrance to the short-term-parking lot, which had been translated into English as ACUTE CARE PARKING. It was a sign better suited to a hospital, where everything is dire. And at the smaller airports, the ones for regional flights, the Russian word for “exit,” vykhod, was translated into English as GET OUT. A ticket to Sochi, for example, said you would be departing from Get Out #4. I laughed with them, but I knew that eventually these mistranslations would be corrected, that Russia would grow out of its awkward teenage capitalism and become smooth and nonchalant. You could see the growing pains in the pomaded hair of the nightclub bouncers, in the tinted windows of the Mercedes sedans on Tverskaya, in the garish sequins on the Versace mannequins posing in a shop around the corner from the Bolshoi Theater.
At the infamous Hungry Duck, I watched intoxicated Russian girls strip on top of the bar and then tumble into the greedy arms of American businessmen. American men still had cachet then; as an American woman, I hugged the sidelines. (“Sarah,” said the Russian men at my office, “why you don’t wear the skirts? Are you the feminist?” They always laughed, and it was a deep, carnivorous sound that made me feel daintier than I am.) Everyone in Moscow was ravenous, and the potential for anarchy—I could feel its kaleidoscope effect—made a lot of foreigners giddy. Most of the reporters at my paper spoke some Russian. But among the copy editors, many of whom were fresh out of Russian-studies programs and itching to put their years in the language lab to good use, the hierarchy was built on who spoke Russian best. They were not gunning for careers in journalism; they just wanted to be in the new post-Soviet Moscow—the wild, wild East—and this job paid the bills. The Americans with Russian girlfriends—“pillow dictionaries,” they called them, aware that these lanky, mysterious women were far better-looking than anyone they’d touched back home—began to sound like natives. They were peacocks, preening with slang. In the office each morning, they’d pull off their boots and slide their feet into their tapochki and head to the kitchen for instant coffee—Nescafé was our only option then—and they’d never mention their past lives in Wisconsin or Nevada or wherever they escaped from. “Oy,” they said, and “Bozhe moy,” which means “my God” but has anguish in Russian that just doesn’t translate. A little bravado goes a long way toward hiding the loneliness. You can reinvent yourself with a different alphabet.
On Saturdays at the giant Izmailovo Market, tourists haggled for Oriental rugs and matryoshka dolls painted to resemble Soviet leaders—Lenin fits into Stalin, who fits into Khrushchev, who fits into Brezhnev, who fits into Andropov, who fits into Gorbachev, who fits into Yeltsin. History reduced to kitsch. While shopping for Christmas gifts once, I stopped by a booth where a spindly drunk was selling old Soviet stamps. And there, pinned like a butterfly to a tattered red velvet display cushion, was Jenny. Her image barely warped by time. “Skolko?” I said. The man asked too much. He had the deadened eyes of a person who hasn’t been sober for years, and I didn’t feel like bargaining, so I handed him the money. He could smell my desperation. He put the stamp in a Ziploc bag, and on the way back home on the Metro I studied her through the plastic. My best friend, commemorated like a cosmonaut. Her name had been transliterated into Cyrillic: it said above the smiling photo of her freckled face. A five-kopeck stamp from the postal service of the USSR. I had just paid ten dollars for something that was originally worth next to nothing.
Conspiracy theorists will tell you that Jennifer Jones’s death was not an accident. They will tell you that her plane crashed not because of mechanical failure, not because the pilot was suffering from dizzy spells, but because the CIA shot it down. She had become a Soviet pawn they say, too sympathetic to the party. Others say that the KGB was responsible, that after the press took pictures of her smiling at the Kremlin and quoted her saying how nice the Russians were, they needed to quit while they were ahead. I’ve read the official reports. I heard the pundits spew their Sunday-morning-talk-show ire. But I don’t recognize the Jennifer Jones I knew in their versions of the story.
Some people will tell you that all of it was propaganda, that she was just a pawn in someone else’s game, but the letter—the original letter—was real. It came from a real place of fear. The threat used to be so tangible. I was prepared to lose the people I loved best. My mother, with her fuzzy hair and lemon-colored corduroys; our dog, Pip; and Jenny. Always Jenny, whose last act must have been storing her tray table in its upright and locked position. Yuri Andropov wished her the best in her young life. Maybe this blessing was a curse.
Or maybe her luck just ran out.
THE FIRST DEFECTOR was my sister.
I don’t remember her, but I have watched the surviving Super 8 footage so many times that the scenes have seared themselves on my brain like memories. In the film, Isabel (Izzy, for short), four years old, dances on a beach. She is twirling, around and around and around again, until she falls in the sand. There is grace in her fall; she does not tumble in a heap but composes herself like a ballerina. She wears a bathing suit with the stars-and-stripes design that the U.S. swim team wore in the 1972 Summer Games in Munich. It is the same suit that Mark Spitz wore when he swam to gold seven times. On Izzy the Speedo bunches near her armpits but is taut across her stomach. Her body has already lost most of its toddler pudge. Her legs are long and lean and are beginning to show muscle definition. My parents were both athletes; Izzy’s coordination and flexibility suggest that she, too, will win many races. But her belly still protrudes slightly like a baby’s, and there are small pockets of fat on her upper thighs. Her hair is startlingly blond and tousled by the wind. Her eyes are green and transparent as sea glass. Behind her the ocean is calm. Her expression betrays—already!—a hint of skepticism. She is the sort of child who is universally declared beautiful. She looks directly at the camera, unafraid of meeting its gaze. My mother hovers at the right side of the frame in sunglasses and a wide-brimmed straw hat. She wears a pink paisley bikini, and she holds me, a juicy nine-month-old with a half-gnawed banana in my right hand, on her lap. The camera rests for a moment on my face, but I am blurry, and before the focus can be adjusted, the lens turns abruptly back to Izzy, who is kneeling in the sand, strangely reverent and, judging from her moving lips and rhythmically tilting head, singing something. The camera pans to my mother once more. She is laughing, head thrown back.
Three minutes of footage, shot in August of 1973, exactly one year before Nixon resigned. There are several notable things about this short film: (1) My mother looks relaxed and happy. Half of her face is obscured by the hat, yes, but the smile she wears is an irrepressible one. She is laughing at her older daughter, squeezing her younger one. She is all lightness and joy. (2) The camera lingers on her lovely legs for at least four seconds, which suggests that my father the auteur was, at this point, still very much in love with (or at least attracted to) my mother. (3) My sister is alive.
Just three months after this scene on the beach, Izzy died of meningitis. It was the sort of freak occurrence about which every parent has nightmares: a sudden fever that won’t go down, a frantic call to the pediatrician—supposedly one of the city’s best—and six hours later, despite said pediatrician’s reassurances that “it was nothing to worry about,” a visit to the emergency room at Georgetown University Hospital, where my sister’s meningitis was diagnosed too late to save her. It had already infected her spine and her brain.
This happened on November 7, 1973: my first birthday. Forever after that it was tainted. My parents could never bring themselves to celebrate it convincingly. During every subsequent birthday, they would excuse themselves at various points and disappear into their own private corners to grieve. At my fifth birthday party—the first one I remember—I could hear my mother’s wails from the laundry room in the basement. The sound was so alarming that the clown who had been hired to make balloon animals kept popping her creations. She seemed skittish. “Why is your mom crying?” the kids from my kindergarten class wanted to know. “I had a sister, and then she died,” I said. I used to deliver this information matter-of-factly. It was no more weighty than the fact that our house was stucco or that my father was British. I was three when my parents told me I’d had a sister, and it was a relief to know that there was an explanation for the absence I’d felt for so long in my limbic memory. I’d reach for a baby doll—a doll I later learned had belonged to her—and picture it cradled in another set of arms. Sitting beneath our dining-room table once when I was four—I liked to crawl into private spaces to play—I was overcome with déjà vu. I was sure I had sat in the same spot with Izzy. It must have been just before she died. I must have been eleven months old. I could almost hear a breathy, high-pitched voice urging me to “smile, little Sarah, smile!”
And soaking in the tub, even now as an adult, I sometimes sense the memory of bath time with my sister. My foot touching hers under the water as the tub filled, the sight of her leaning back to tip her blond head under the faucet. Letters of the alphabet in primary colors stuck on the porcelain sides of the tub, arranged in almost-words, and my mother crouched on the floor beside us, her sleeves rolled up so that her blouse didn’t get wet as she washed our hair. And after we were pulled from the water, did we wriggle free of our towel cocoons and chase each other around the house naked? Did I make her laugh? I have no proof that it didn’t happen. I feel certain it did.
Intuitively I knew that something was missing long before I knew how to articulate it. Long before I knew that most people’s parents slept in the same bedroom, that most people’s mothers weren’t afraid to leave the house, that some children had never seen their parents cry, I knew that something was off in my family. “Your poor parents,” people would say to me when I was older and I told them the story. But no one seemed to understand that I felt the loss, too. My sister was in heaven, my mother said, with my mother’s parents, who also died too young for me to meet them. I mourned the sister I didn’t get to know. I longed to share secrets and clothes. I wanted a co-conspirator. I was jealous of the kids with siblings, who rolled their eyes at each other behind their parents’ backs, who counted on the unconditional loyalty only a sister or a brother can provide.
I loved watching that film of my sister. My parents had bought the camera right before that beach trip, so there is no earlier footage of her. There are some photographs, of course, but it was a thrill for me to see her move. Her right hand ebbed and flowed through the air, replicating the motion of the waves behind her. Her body language was like a tide pulling me in; I recognized it somewhere deep inside myself. If she had lived, I know that we would be the kind of adult siblings about whom people say, “Their mannerisms are the same.”
My mother liked to watch our home movies every Saturday night, but screening them was a labor-intensive process. You had to set up the projector on the end table we used as a base, thread the reel through the machine—“Careful, careful!” my mother would say to my father—and sometimes, when the projector overheated, the film would burn and darkness would spread across the image on the living-room wall. It was terrifying to watch the dark blot fill the screen, as if our past were being annihilated right in front of us. It happened so quickly: one moment bright with life and then, suddenly, nothing but darkness. We lost many precious moments in this way—“Stop it, stop it, turn it off!” my mother would cry as my father fumbled with the projector, trying to save the rest of the reel from being fried—including the establishing shots of Izzy on the beach. A zoom into her cherubic face and then we watched that face melt. “My baby girl!” my mother whimpered while the loose strand of film flapped hysterically and my father struggled to turn off the machine. The manic whirring stopped, and then we were all quiet as my father put the reel away in its gray steel case.
“Sometimes I think we should just let it burn,” he said one evening.
“It’s the only one we have of her,” said my mother.
“But we’ve got to let go, Alice. We’ve got to look forward.”
She launched her iciest stare at him. “Is there something better on the horizon?”
I could tell he wanted to erupt. I don’t know if he locked up his rage because I was in the room or because he had already given up on my mom.
We didn’t watch the Izzy footage again after that—my mother was afraid the rest of the reel would be destroyed, so she hid it inside a hatbox in her closet. But when I was old enough to operate the projector, I sneaked late-night viewings of my sister. I would wait until I was sure my mother was asleep and then creep into her dressing room. She kept the hatbox on the top shelf, and as I reached for it, my hand would graze the silks of the dresses my mother had long ago stopped wearing. She retired her glamour when my sister died. (“You may not believe this,” my father said, “but at Radcliffe your mother was always the life of the party.”)