My Kansas life in 1993-1994 was full of confusions and misunderstandings in all spheres of life, but love and dating especially.
First of all, I and my Ukrainian girlfriends, having gotten accustomed to severe Slavic men back home, had no idea that men could be so friendly. Friendly, yet their friendliness did not mean interest, as we soon discovered. My friend, let’s call her Larysa, made her poor classmate invite her to the movies and pay for her, which he had no intention of doing but had to rise to the occasion. My story was even more absurd. A very friendly (oh, they truly were friendly, always smiling!..) guy stopped me on the street and invited me to a Bible studies gathering. I thought, well, surely this is just a pretext, he is just shy and this is his way to score girls. I was wrong, it was not a pretext at all, and I had to figure out a way to run from a bunch of Jesus aficionados.
Secondly, it turned out that love life was not at all the source of endless tragedies, as it was back home. Even in the relatively easy-going eighties we still read the poetry by Eduard Asadov, a Russian poet and author of a number of popular maxims that reflected the mood of times, such as “better die but do not kiss anybody if you do not love them,” or “wait for real love, and if real love does not come, better to not have any.” We still watched Soviet films that featured petty psychopathic men who not only drank but also still lived with their moms, and whom the heroines for some reason adored, such as in the famous Moscow Doesn’t Believe in Tears. We read books a-la Anna Karenina and other love stories of the similar kind, from Russia and Ukraine, about bad luck, unrequited love, suicide, and the absence of not only a happy but even a vaguely normal end. We witnessed the lives of our mothers and grandmothers, always working, always cooking from scratch (Soviet Union was not a country of many luxuries, and nothing was ever pre-made or even pre-cut), and if we were to ever ask them whether they were in love with our dad or grandpa, they would only wave their hands at us and roll their eyes: how dared we be so stupid to inquire!.. Who has time to care about such things!..
In comparison to all this, love life in the US was sweet and cute. There was no necrophilic preoccupation with death, in case love doesn’t pan out. Nobody was quite ready to jump in front of the train. The ideology of pleasure has its own problems, true, but at least in the States one could, in principle, exist in the moment of “now,” something the Soviet life never mustered, always talking about the “bright future” and the “glorious past.” Both were codes for “death.” In the US the moment of “now” meant “we are students now, we love, and tomorrow there will be something else or someone else, and it’s ok.” What do you mean – ok? – screamed an inner Soviet Cthulhu from the depths of our souls. – What do you mean – ok? And what about suffering?..
We lived by dozens of taboos, and we were not even aware of them. “A woman should not show interest in a man.” This surprised Americans. Why not? She is allowed to be interested and to show it. She has rights, too. “A woman should not be “easy””. What do you mean – easy? If you like someone, you can just be with them, what’s wrong with that? “A woman must not show excitement or other emotions. She must be reserved.” This one was more complicated. It was a rule produced by a society where the presence of a man could automatically mean danger. To avoid this danger, a woman was to “play dead,” as if she were an animal who just spotted a predator. A man was bad news, something akin to a natural disaster: such was the history of that country, with its wars, gulags, unleashed criminals, street “gangs” where the leaders all had been to prison. But how and why would one try to explain this to a nice, smiling Tom or John? “A woman must always look her best,” that is, wear makeup, heels, and uncomfortable dresses. We felt bad for American girls who didn’t bother with all that. We could not understand that they possessed certain freedom we had no idea of yet.
In the Soviet Union love was the last shelter of the personal, of the private, banished by the communist ideology and the cult of the “common good”. But this terrain was so poorly studied and so poisoned by all kind of silenced traumas that it was toxic. Love, as one bard used to sing, was “the business of the young,” and youth in the Soviet Union lasted up until about twenty, and then you had to marry. There was no infrastructure for dating, no places to rent, no apartments to buy, no hotels to check into together. The latter was only possible if you were married to each other and had papers to prove it. I am not kidding. The short history of youth in the Soviet Union (a great title for a novel), at least its female version, was brimming with drama. From time to time this or the other girlfriend of mine had a breakdown and swallowed matches because she heard from someone that this would kill her, and then swallowed charcoal pills because she was actually afraid to die. Girls looked for psychics and card readers. Girls bought “textbooks” that contained all kinds of mumbo-jumbo on magic, Hermes Trismegistus, tarot and other such arts. Girls sat near the telephones for months on end, repeating the same mantra over and over – “when is he going to call?..”
The woman was a victim in this system. Yet there was literally no life elsewhere, beyond the magic circle of what passed for love. What was the alternative? Building communism?… We could not exactly explain this condition of dependency on “love” – the only territory of normalcy, so to say, of something alive in the realm of the dead. Our Toms or Johns, or Janes, our girlfriends, and roommates, would not understand. For them, “love” was not everything. Their gardens consisted of more than one secret plant. They also had life, travel, career, and snowboarding in Colorado. They asked us about our “adventures.” What were we to tell them? About the tarot readers or about sitting near the telephone? Or about the fact that our parents were ready to marry us off as soon as we return? And they were, indeed. My father told me, when bringing me to the airport, “Save there in America some money for your wedding.” I was eighteen and had no fiancé, but no matter.
Everybody knows that “there was no sex in the Soviet Union.” This was what one Soviet woman told American women during one of the early Moscow-US “telebridges.” She meant, of course, the discourse of sexuality, not sex per se. But regardless; even when sex did “reappear,” it was not spoken about or discussed openly. There was no communication between generations. Nobody born in the seventies could recall or imagine bonding with their mother or grandma, giggling, drinking tea and talking about “girls’ stuff,” with mom or grandma providing empowerment and giving gentle advice. Such scenes existed only in western films. We could count, in the best case scenario, on advice on how to grow potatoes, and in the worst, on a hysterical shouting: how could a decent woman even ask about sex and think that her mom or grandma would engage in such disgusting acts?.. Yet everybody was keenly interested in the subject. One neighbor from our apartment complex managed to get a sex manual once, and she circulated this treasure among neighbors, her friends. And the manual disappeared: either really got lost, or somebody decided to keep it.
If the dramas with matches and charcoal pills made a good melodrama, the search for the lost sex manual turned out to be a veritable thriller. Neighbors busted into each other’s apartments, searching behind couches. The kids, and especially the teenagers, were thoroughly interrogated and cross-interrogated, myself included. We knew nothing: the theft in question was obviously engineered by an adult. The whole team of spying volunteers was watching everybody’s every move. Finally, there appeared Deus ex machina, and that was my mother. She borrowed a different sex manual from somebody, in great secret (I can’t even begin to think where and from who, and, frankly, it may be better not to know), and arranged for photocopies to be made. Also in secret. This was a deed practically matching those of the dissidents, in terms of courage.
This was another story that one could not retell to the western audience. Repressions of sex drive constitute the very basis of civilization, of course, but there are different levels of it. In Kansas University, a male student fell out of the window of women’s dorm, where he was visiting his girlfriend. He was trying to climb in into the window to bypass security. The administration was shocked, and loosened some of the rules, to prevent further loss of life and to stop the unnecessary shaming. I can only guess how would a Soviet or post-Soviet university administration react. They would probably dance a happy dance on that poor student’s grave, and pronounce him a new Ted Bundy.
We learned that love could be an adventure; that life is, with some luck, is actually kind of long, and one can have more than one adventure and more than one serious relationship, versus “the only one,” in a dingy Soviet apartment, populated by goblins and in-laws. We learned that one doesn’t necessarily have to cry, but, if one feels like it, it’s ok, too, and nobody will stand over you and shout, as once did my mother when I dared to fall in love with a French student (a French amateur theater visited my town in 1992): “Stop this immediately! Forget him! You will never see him! You will never go there!” (And in reality, Mom, I did go there, and am free to love whomever I choose and to cry whenever I feel like it…)
…Our plane back was headed for Moscow: Kyiv at that time had no office of the exchange program that sent us to Kansas. Larysa and I cried during the flight. Our boyfriends, whom we did manage to find in America, dropped us off at the airport. It was obvious that all of us won’t be seeing each other again. It was forever. But this is was not the “forever” from tragedies; this was a different “forever,” the one that simply marks the transition to a different part of life. In this sense, I can say that I do not fit the onesies I wore when I was two, but there is hardly any sadness in this fact. We, however, didn’t yet know how to tell between these two “forevers.” That’s why we cried. We also cried because we knew that in Moscow there would be no time left for crying: our parents will meet us, and we will board different trains to go to different cities, and the only person who was still the witness to our pain would be gone.
…There was little awareness of all this back then. Awareness did not come easy. But memory worked very well. In fact, never before and never after had my memory worked this well, though I usually do not have reasons to complain about it anyway. It was working with merciless precision, full speed, almost like cinematography. I am inclined to see this an-almost pathologically clear collection of memories, big and small, as a room modelled in the space of energies. This is the room I can always enter to watch my holographic self in the situations of the past, like a film, and thus to identify the painful ruptures or collisions of cultures, and in this way to understand my own culture better, even its simplest and the most banal features.
Its love, its red hearts.
And myself, too: in them, without them, beyond them.