Encounter in Samarkand


Karl Taro Greenfeld
March 31, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)

Our train had set out near dawn from Tashkent, belching its way from the station at an anemic 6 miles per hour, leaving the immense fortresses, brilliant minarets and dilapidated Stalin-era tractor factories behind to enter a stretch of vacant anti-terrain where, about 20 miles out of the city, the train came to an inexplicable two-hour halt. We sat for a while in our stuffy compartments, staring from the windows for as long as we could tolerate, before impatiently pacing the passenger and baggage cars, stepping off the train and padding for a few moments through the hot sand until the oppressive midday sun, coupled with the unyielding monotony of the landscape, forced us all to clamber back inside the train to sit fanning ourselves in our compartments. Legend had it that Tamerlane had led his horde through this desert and been so bored by the ubiquitous sameness of the treeless, topographically challenged wasteland that in retribution he had slaughtered the entire population of the next unlucky village he came across.

A few of us listened to our cassette players, others flipped through out-of-date magazines or new collections of the complete works of Maxim Gorky or Anton Chekov -- vast, multi-volume sets printed on cheap paper that retailed for a few cents here in the Soviet Union. Barnett, the hulking, barefoot University of Alabama graduate who had recently gone off the wagon, slipped a liter of hot vodka from his duffel and unfolded a brand new pocket knife to gouge at his ingrown toenail. (He had rationalized his decision to stumble around Soviet Central Asia barefoot by pointing out that he was destined for the podiatrist's office anyway because of his absurdly swollen big toe.) Now, he swigged the hot vodka and probed his foot with the knife, slicing away at the bulbous flesh that had swollen up around his nail. The train lurched forward, causing Barnett to cut a larger than anticipated hunk from his foot, splattering the side of the compartment with blood.

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We made steady, albeit painfully slow, progress for an hour, then came to another halt in another similarly landscapeless patch of earth where the conductor stomped down the corridor, ordering everyone off the train. We gathered our shoulder bags and day packs, making our way along the narrow passageway to the rusted, metal-grill steps to the sand. An impromptu nomadic migration seemed to be in progress: Hundreds of passengers marched alongside the train, their bundles of clothes and wicker cages of chickens and hog-tied goats all moving along with them in shambling piles beneath the blistering afternoon sun. We were changing trains, word came down, to another train up ahead along the same track. So we joined the classless processions from third class and second class after being assured that, as we were first-class passengers, the rest of our luggage would be moved by the porters from the baggage car to the new train. Passing our still hissing, navy-blue locomotive, we came across a rusted, derelict, derailed hulk whose chassis was so twisted the rear coupler hung 10 meters over the desert. The locomotive had been torqued into such a gravity-defying angle it seemed it would collapse at any moment. But as we skirted around the engine rather than risk walking under it, I saw that a few tiny gray and brown birds, the first I had seen in this desert, had made nests in the shadowy undercarriage.

Just beyond was our new train, a series of light green passenger cars, in repose behind another engine, this one a living version of the tangled, skeletal conglomeration of wheels, axles and gears that lay dead in the tracks behind us. By the familiarity with which the great mass of passengers climbed aboard this new train and retook their seats, and the un-Soviet efficiency of the entire act, one had the impression that this transfer had been going on for years, that the rusted locomotive had been here as long as most of us had been alive and had become a regular part of the Tashkent-Samarkand run.

By the time we resettled into our compartments aboard the new train -- slightly less dilapidated than the last train but with the same cigarette butts crammed into every possible corner and the same coating of soot on every surface -- and were under way, it was already dark and Barnett had once again flipped out his pocket knife and was setting to work on his infected toe.

The sun went down, the temperature dropping from above 90 degrees to somewhere in the 40s. Barnett's sister Melissa stood up, wrapping herself in her light-brown alpaca coat and heading out into the passageway. Wearing only the T-shirt and jeans I had boarded the train with -- the rest of my clothes were in my luggage -- I found Melissa standing in the narrow walk at the end of the car, on a grated shelf that connected over the coupler to form a walkway to the next car. The train had finally achieved a decent pace, and was now bashing along so that we could barely make out the small tumescences of sand alongside the tracks. Melissa stood against the back of the car. I slid in alongside her, my shoulder touching hers.

"I can't be around him when he does that," she said, barely audible over the screeching and buckling of train wheels.

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"Jabs at his toe?" I asked.

She nodded. I needed to get the conversation around to us, or to make a pass, or somehow transgress the space between us to instigate the fling I was desperate to have.

"What do you think we should do?" I asked.

"About what?"

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"About your brother's toe."

At the outset of the trip there had been a faculty chaperone, a German philosophy professor named Werner von Semperoff, whose charge it had been to lead us about the Soviet Union. During the earlier, Moscow leg of the trip he had been plentifully in appearance, at the head of our straggling band of students as we wandered past Lenin's tomb or through the GUM department store.

He had introduced us to a lovely, middle-aged Russian woman with gun-metal gray eyes who was so much prettier than the Russian women we had seen in the streets that we assumed she worked for the KGB or some similar government agency. And evidently von Semperoff had better things to do than lead us through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, the two Soviet Central Asian Republics we were scheduled to visit on this trip; for he hadn't boarded the Aeroflot Tupelov-72 that had turbulently hurtled us from Moscow to Tashkent.

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We heard from Sergei, the portly Intourist agent assigned to lead us through Central Asia, that von Semperoff would rejoin us at some later date at some distant city -- when he said the name of the place, none of us had been familiar enough with Soviet place names to remember it.

We were college students on our spring break from the American College in Paris, moneyed brats mostly, expecting to take a peek into what was then the Evil Empire. Gorbachev had been in office only a year, and all we knew of him for sure was that he had a stain on his forehead that we conjectured was shaped like Afghanistan. It was then still a rarity for Westerners to visit the Soviet Union and when we entered the country our passports had been taken from us and we had been issued yellow Intourist cards that we had to carry everywhere with us and present at hotels, train stations and airports. Our parents had shelled out something like $2,000 so that we could sit in sweltering train compartments, listen to Motvrhead cassettes and drink hot vodka. It had been advertised as a study trip, but thus far the only class had been an impromptu lecture by von Semperoff back in Moscow on the perils of passing out drunk on the Moscow subway system.

During the first few days of wandering around Moscow in the slush and mud of spring thaw, trading dollars and francs for bootlegged Beluga caviar and canned Kamchatka crab legs because the food at the Hotel Cosmos had been stubbornly inedible, I had taken to making sure I was walking alongside Melissa or somehow seated next to her during bus rides and meal breaks. Prior to the trip, I had noticed her several times around school, but I had only met her the day before we left Paris, while I was standing next to the pinball machine in the American College Cafi. She wore her black hair long in the back with bangs falling to her eyebrows -- Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders had prominently sported this style a few years earlier. Her cheeks were full but rested on high cheekbones, lending symmetry to the thin layer of baby fat that had yet to be burned away by the real world and real life. Her eyes were blue-green, her nose a sturdy isosceles triangle and her lips a parted, flattened rose.

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Her body was a solid combination of muscle and girlish curves. She had been an athlete at whatever girl's prep school she had attended; if I had to guess her sport it would have been field hockey, so she surprised me when she later told me she played volleyball. She was not long and sinewy, as were the volleyball players I had known; she was evenly proportioned with ample hips, a narrow waist the circumference of a long playing record and generous, upstanding breasts.

I had overheard her telling another girl she was going on this trip, and that her brother had flown over from Alabama to join her. I introduced myself. I swear I noticed something in the way she looked at me; I knew then the primary purpose of this trip.

We arrived in Samarkand sometime after midnight, the train gasping to a halt
at what seemed another unscheduled delay but was actually our destination.
The platform next to the train began to teem with life as passengers
disembarked and bundles were thrown from the train to outstretched arms.
Descending to the platform, we stood shivering amid the hurly-burly of
djellaba-clad Central Asians securing their fabric-wrapped parcels and baskets
of fruit. As first-class passengers, we were once again told not to worry about
our luggage, the porters would make sure it was passed on to the Intourist
drivers, who would see it safely to the Hotel Samarkand.

Teenagers in denim jackets shuffled alongside us as we walked through the
station, nodding to us and moving their heads as though they were talking.
They did this so that anyone watching would think they were trying to practice
their English. What they were actually hoping was to purchase some black
market gear.

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We had heard, like all Westerners who visited Russia in those days, that one
could make a handsome profit by trading designer jeans. But the Russians and
Central Asians had been thoroughly unimpressed by the copious amounts of denim
we had imported; the market was by then flooded. What every Russian under the
age of 40 desperately wanted was heavy metal cassettes -- Iron Maiden,
Dokken, AC/DC, Van Halen, Quiet Riot, Ratt and, the apparent favorite band of
all Russian metalheads, the Scorpions. Unfortunately, most of my fellow
travelers were too sophisticated to be listening to heavy metal; this was,
after all, the mid-'80s, and your average college student was then into
much hipper music: R.E.M., the Replacements, H|sker D|, the Talking Heads -- music,
in other words, that Soviet headbangers found incomprehensible. As a music
fan with an annoyingly developed sense of the ironic, I happened to be going
through a phase of re-appreciating heavy metal (a phase that lasted
approximately seven years), particularly AC/DC and Van Halen, and so arrived
in the Soviet Union with a backpack full of metal cassettes that proved to be
more valuable than dollars in Gorbachev's Russia.

We waited in the cavernous, darkened lobby of the Hotel Samarkand on battered
Brezhnev-era knockoff naugahyde chairs. Sergei, our Intourist guide, was
undertaking the usual protracted struggle to check us into the hotel. No
matter how many rooms were vacant, train compartments empty or airplane seats
unoccupied, no one in the Soviet Union's tourist sector seemed particularly
pleased to be filling those spaces with hard-currency-paying foreigners. It
was as if the entire tourist infrastructure of the country was perpetually
reserved for some high-ranking government official who would never arrive.

The staff of the Samarkand, once they were roused from whatever collective
backroom stupor they had managed to organize for themselves, grudgingly passed
over a dozen fourth-floor room keys with no room number indicators attached to
them. A surly, sour-smelling desk worker assured us through Sergei that all
the keys in the hotel worked in every door, except those doors with newer
locks for which the keys had been lost. We fell in behind a bell captain in a
tattered uniform who led us up several flights of marble stairs where we
disbursed to claim our rooms. Our luggage, we were assured, was on its own
separate way up.

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I arranged to share a room with Barnett, who immediately fell onto the spongy
mattress to pass out, his bare feet hanging over the side of the bed and his
toe swollen to the size of a newborn infant's head. The room was even colder
than it had been outside. Flipping through his duffel bag, I removed a Roll
Tide sweat shirt, which I threw on over my cut-off army pants and polo shirt.
The light switch near the door had proven useless; when Barnett had flipped the
switch upon entering the room, the switch had come off in his hand, leaving one
exposed wire, which we both felt it prudent to avoid. In the bathroom I found
a string hanging from the ceiling that when pulled produced a tepid stream of
yellow light sufficient for me to make out the following day's agenda. It
went something like this: Breakfast, Mosque, Mosque, Mosque, Lunch, Mosque,
Mosque, Monument to the Great Patriotic War, Dinner. I rooted through
Barnett's duffel again for some caviar, which I ate with my fingers.

It was Melissa's idea that we take a walk. She had knocked on our door,
ostensibly to check on her brother, and finding me with my fingers blackened
by Beluga and her brother unconscious on the bed, she asked if I would like to
take a stroll, explore the city. At that point, had she suggested we sneak
into a Soviet nuclear testing facility I would have gone along with her.

The roads were deserted. The streetlights did not work, save at the
occasional intersection where a flickering bulb would burn surrounded by
thousands of moths. But a full moon cast a dull glow and lit the way down a
wide, palm tree-lined avenue. The vast, imposing, shadowy gray buildings that
loomed on each side appeared to be government buildings. Every five minutes,
olive-colored trucks rumbled past, the driver slowing to stare at Melissa and
me.

Melissa led us from the main drag onto a two-lane dirt road, past shuttered
apartment buildings. She was intoxicated by the place, by the strangeness of
it, the foreignness; it was vastly different from her native Jefferson County,
Ala., and it was even a wide remove from the Fifth Arrondissement in Paris,
where she had been living the last few years. The people here were
ethnically opposite; their arid land was topographically alien; their
languages -- Cyrillic and Arabic -- were alphabetically exotic; their system of
government was anathema. There was even a distinctive smell to the place, a
honeyed sweetness mingled with the usual third world sour.
In this unknown land, I hoped, this place of mystery, surely the romantic
possibilities were limitless. If back in the United States we never
would have met, we had been brought closer together by Paris and then tossed next
to each other on the same narrow dirt road here in Samarkand.

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We turned again, onto a track that led off through irrigated tracts of
desert farm land. Already, that feeling of wonderment and mystery at our
dislocation had begun to give way, for me at least, to something like fear and
discomfort; for not only did we not know where we were, neither did anyone
else. Our classmates were by now into their third pints of vodka or were
already asleep while Sergei, our Intourist guide, was probably into his
60th pint of vodka. We had vanished off the map, had simply walked out of
our hotel and stumbled onto the cultivated fringes of some has-been caravan
town now run by a bunch of drunk commissars.

But I was reluctant to show this fear to Melissa. She was of sturdier stock
than me. Her father, she had told me, was a celebrity of sorts, the head
football coach of a prominent college team that had not lived up to preseason
expectations, although Melissa had insisted that the Aloha Bowl had been the
stated goal of this team all season long. And as she walked in that evening
light, her face silhouetted by the full moon's glow, she was plainly the
striking, good-looking embodiment of her family's wholesome American image,
her brother's soporific condition notwithstanding. She still held at that
moment, at age 20, all the charms of girlhood and the knowing sexuality of
womanhood. As hard as she tried to seem like a woman of the world, to seem
sophisticated -- in Paris, I knew, she went to trendy bontes like Bain Douch, Appocalypse and La
Piscine -- there was the redolent whiff of the cheerleader and
"A" student about her. Even on this dusty lane, in this Central Asian night,
she was plainly an American Girl of the type I tirelessly lusted after
through high school and college.

We had emerged onto another paved stretch of blacktop. The vast sky, a
purple-lit sheet of pin-prick stars that ran in an immense belt from horizon
to horizon, provided us with no clues as to where we were. Every star was of
a brightness sufficient to be deemed the brightest in the sky, and anyway,
even if we had been able to divine a North Star, we had no clue in what direction our hotel lay. It had been a kilometer since we had seen any man-made structures,
and I pointed this out to Melissa as a bad sign, indicating that we were heading away from civilization rather than toward it.
Yet when we reversed course, hoping to find the narrow lane on which we had
come to this paved stretch of road, the lane seemed to have vanished, the side
of the road offering up only the relentless sameness of tilled plots with
farmhouses invisible in the night. The moonlight that had previously seemed
ample now was inadequate. The darkness closed in around us.

"Nous sommes perdus," said Melissa in her Alabama-twanged French.
At that moment light flickered on the horizon at the end of the ribbon of
black road. At first I took it to be a distant flash of thunder, but the light
seemed too yellow, somehow artificial.

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Headlights! It was a truck. Its husky, gasping engine already audible
through the thin, dry desert air, a canopied diesel cab was erratically
swerving toward us. We were found. We could thumb a lift back to whatever
passed for the center of this one collectively-owned horse town.

This was a troop truck, the property of the People's Army of the Soviet
Socialist Republics. We stopped waving when we saw the maddened, febrile eyes
of the driver and his three compatriots in the lighted cab of the vehicle,
leering in shock at us over the headlights of the truck as it came to idle.
Plainly, whatever we were, we did not belong here, along this dirt road, in
the middle of the night, when all good comrades were safely asleep. While
the driver swung open his door with a slow metallic groan, the whole canopied
back of the truck seemed to come alive as the troops in the trailer
roused themselves and began to peer over the cab. Russian conversation
erupted.

And even from this distance, struggling to see past the headlights, I could
tell that the majority of gazes had fallen upon Melissa.

About two dozen soldiers disembarked from the vehicle to form a semi-circle,
panting sour, boozy effluvium at us. The soldiers wore olive-green uniforms
soiled with thick, grimy layers of dust and boots caked with dried mud. They
had been working all day. And probably drinking all day and night.
A mustachioed man wearing a green cap who had been sitting next to the driver
appeared to be in command. He regarded us with a mixture of curiosity,
suspicion and a desire to sniff out some way to make this serendipitous
discovery somehow pay off for him.

He spoke brusquely -- fast, hoarse commands in Russian that we could not
understand.

We did not have passports, and we had surrendered our Intourist cards upon
checking into the hotel. I had my wallet, from which I produced a California
driver's license that I showed to the man in the cap. He took this and
studied it, and then looked over Melissa's Carte de Sejour, a document
entitling her to study in France. In the hopes of further convincing him we
were Americans, students and definitely not some bizarre brand of counter-revolutionary Soviet citizen or air-dropped Western spies, I showed him the
American Express card my father had given me and Melissa produced, of all
things, a Galeries Lafayette charge card.

"Hotel Samarkand, Hotel Samarkand," we kept repeating over and over.

The crowd of curious, drunken soldiers was becoming restless. For them,
Melissa was a wondrous surprise. A gift, perhaps. A foreign woman, in
jewelry, wandering on a stretch of road where she should not have been. And
her very presence out here indicated she would not be missed. For if anyone
were monitoring her whereabouts, then surely she would not have been allowed to
wander so far. If these 20 soldiers gave a thought to me it was only that
they would have to kill me, either before or after they were finished with
Melissa.

Two of the men lunged forward, their green uniforms shaking off a small
cloud of dust that swirled in the headlights. They tugged at Melissa's coat;
she grabbed for my shoulder.

I took her in my arms.

The man in the cap sternly ordered the men back into line.

Then he held his hand out, gesturing for Melissa to put her hand in his. She
shook her head. He slapped the palm of his own hand and proffered it again.

She tentatively held her hand out. The man in the cap bent down for a closer
look at the emerald ring on her right hand.

The troops were murmuring among themselves now. A few had grown bored,
probably from the realization that whatever was to be gained from us would not
trickle down to them. But a few of the soldiers remained interested in us,
and a noisy round of arguing between the man in the cap and some of the
soldiers ensued, during which violent hand gestures were thrown our way and my
driver's license and Melissa's Carte de Sejour were passed from hand to hand,
and once cast down to the pavement.

Finally, the man in the cap took Melissa by the arm, attempting to pull her
away from me, toward the back of the truck. She clung to me, shaking her head
violently.

Another round of angry discussion ensued, during which Melissa kept on
hugging me.

"Married, married," she said, pointing to her ring and then to me.

The man in the cap shook his head slowly. Some decision had been reached. He gestured for us to go to the truck. We didn't move.

He then barked at us angrily in Russian. The crowd of soldiers parted for us
as we walked to the truck, several of the soldiers reaching out to feel
Melissa's hair as she passed.

We had been ordered into the sour-smelling cab, where we sat surrounded by
four Russian soldiers. Melissa placed herself onto my lap rather than on the
hard seat next to the commander. The truck started up, grinding into gear, and
we set off down the narrow road. As the Russian men slid closer to Melissa
she managed to arrange herself so that she was perched atop me.

We did not know where we were going. But as disoriented as I was, I was sure
our hotel lay somewhere to the right of this road. As long as we hung a right
at some point, we would be fine. That would mean we were being driven back to
our hotel. We rolled up to a deserted intersection, a barren crossing of two
seldom-traveled roads. Turn right, I was thinking, hang a right. Please,
please, please.

We turned left.

Now I was certain we were in trouble. We would be arrested. Or even worse:
Melissa would be raped, tortured, mutilated, her body abandoned for the
coyotes -- did they even have coyotes? -- somewhere in this vast, inhospitable
desert. And what would happen to me? Would I valiantly -- and pointlessly -- seek
to defend Melissa's honor? Force these God-hating Reds to kill me before they
had their way with Melissa? I really had no choice but to surrender myself on
the altar of Melissa's honor. If they were driving us to some more convenient
disposal point, where our screams would be unheard and our bodies unfound,
then to be honorable was also the only rational course. I would be killed
either way. I had run through the probabilities and decided I would make a
last stand when we were out of the truck. I would at least die with dignity,
defending the honor of American womanhood.

"They'll have to kill me to get to you," I murmured to Melissa.

"What are you talking about?" she said.

We were slowing down. There it was, the Hotel Samarkand, lit up and
beckoning, the most beautiful sight I would lay eyes on in the Soviet Union.
The soldiers opened the door and let us out, returning my driver's license,
her student identification and our credit cards.

Upstairs, when Melissa came with me to check on her brother, we found Barnett
had disappeared. The imprint of his body was still visible in the foam
mattress. We assumed he was somewhere in the hotel, drinking with our
classmates. So it was just us. She stood next to me beside the bed. And
finally, for the first time this whole trip, we knew exactly where we were
going.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

I woke up before Melissa and climbed out of bed to look for our baggage. It
had not yet arrived. I found a tin of crab legs in Barnett's duffel, which I
pried open with his pocket knife to eat with my fingers.

Melissa stirred, blinking her eyes as she lay up in bed on one elbow.
"That's disgusting."
I shrugged.
"Where's my brother?"
I shrugged. "Maybe he turned up, saw us and then went to sleep in your
room."
I swallowed a hunk of crab meat.
"Our luggage still hasn't arrived," I told her.
This jolted Melissa out of bed. "What?"
I offered a moist slab of crab. She shook her head, pushing my hand aside.
"Where is it?"
I shrugged again.

Fifteen minutes later we were downstairs, along with our classmates, crowding
around Sergei, our Intourist guide, and demanding that our luggage be located
immediately. Was it in the hotel? At the station? On the train? Sergei had
no idea.
We had now been in the same clothes for close to 24 hours, without
our toiletries, soap, clean underwear, warm clothes. The girls, more
agitated than the boys, were in a state of open rebellion. They dreaded the
prospect of going another day without changing clothes or freshening up. Then
there was the sticky problem of tampons, feminine hygiene, myriad issues
Sergei was uniquely unqualified to address.
The luggage, I suspected, had rolled back to Tashkent on the first train we
had taken. It would take days to locate it, days more to send it to us, and
by then who knew how many times it would have been ransacked. My guess was
that from here on we had only what we carried. In my case, that meant my
worldly possessions now consisted of my Walkman, my cache of heavy metal
cassettes and a few sets of triple-A batteries.
Melissa walked from the crowd surrounding Sergei to sit on the faux-naugahyde
lobby chair next to me, leaning her head onto my shoulder in a gesture I
adored. Even without a shower or clean clothes, she smelled wonderful.
She sat upright. "Where is my brother?"

The hotel staff revealed that Barnett had gone out sometime after we had; they
remembered because he had been barefoot and carrying a half-liter of vodka.
"He's probably drying out somewhere," I consoled Melissa. "He'll turn up."
She shot me a glance that instilled in me fear that there would be no encore
of last night.
After we plied a hotel employee with a Motvrhead "Ace of Spades" cassette, he
suggested we check the local detention center, the drunk tank where comrades
who pass out on city streets were taken during morning sweeps.
He joined Melissa, Sergei and me in a taxi, directing us down the wide avenue
to a building resembling a college dormitory before which uniformed men and
women sat fanning themselves in the shade. A few fruit vendors were doing
slow trade in the lee of the building. We parked and followed the hotel
employee along the uneven sidewalk to the dirty granite portico. In a vast,
low-ceilinged, dimly lit lobby a blue-capped official sat behind a beaten-up
wooden desk that had nothing on it save a dirty black telephone.
After a brief conversation, Sergei pointed to the telephone.
"Nyet, nyet." The man with the blue cap kept shaking his head.
I gathered we needed this man to pick up this telephone to call someone to
find out about Melissa's brother. Melissa stood with her arms crossed,
fuming. I mourned the loss of my Motvrhead cassette.

Finally, Melissa, tired at the unexplained delay, stormed forward and grabbed
the telephone.
"Hello?" she asked.
An angry voice shouted back in Russian, audible from where I stood.
She handed the phone to the hotel employee, who held it in his hand for a
moment and then dropped it, as if burned.
The man behind the desk stood up, replacing the phone in its cradle. He
shouted something in Russian.
"He says to wait a moment," Sergei said.
The blue-capped official stood with his arms folded, staring at us. He was
literally waiting, not for anything to happen but to prove that he had the
power to make us wait. Removing a long, paper-filtered Russian cigarette from
a blue package, he lit it with a wooden match and smoked it all the way down
to the nub before flipping it to the cinder floor and stamping it out. Then
he sat down and lifted the phone, speaking to whoever was always listening on
the other end.
He asked a few questions, waited, asked more questions and hung up the phone.
"We must wait a moment," Sergei said again.
"Is he here?" Melissa asked.
Sergei shrugged. "They are checking."
The man with the cap mumbled something.
We headed up a flight of stairs and along a corridor, past cavernous offices
filled literally to overflowing with paper. This was the only time in my life
I have ever seen papers spilling out of an office; some of the rooms were so
stuffed with bundled-up blocks of documentation that there was no more space for
human beings. As these piles of paper had settled, their collective weight
had buckled the poorly reinforced walls, causing the walls to cave in around
several streams of extruding documents that littered the hallways. The
bureaucrats working here skirted the various paper mounds, stepping over the
reams as if they weren't there.
The whole of the building smelt of stale, black, Russian tobacco; cigarette
butts were mashed into every available corner or crevice and flattened along
the cinder floors. After passing a foul-smelling, empty cafeteria we walked
downstairs and out of the building to pass into another, smaller structure
where uniformed men sat on stools and benches smoking cigarettes. A man in a
green uniform with a leather strap running across his chest sat at a desk near
the back. His face was pinkish red, as if he had been holding his breath all
day. As we entered, he pretended to be busy with a Cyrillic document. The
other men whose duties, apparently, consisted of sitting on benches smoking
cigarettes, made leering gestures toward Melissa and offered guttural, Uzbeki
comments.
The pink-faced man shook his head before we could begin speaking. With his
eyes closed he spoke in Russian, as if he already knew why we had come.
"He is here," Sergei said, translating for us.
"Where is he?" Melissa demanded. "Can we see him?"
There was a problem.
"He has caused harm to the People's property," Sergei explained.
What Barnett had busted up was not exactly clear. Having stumbled about this
city myself, I could not recall seeing anything not constructed of concrete
and granite.
"What did he do?" Melissa asked.
Sergei shook his head.
The pink-faced man shuffled some documents on his desk, producing an onion-skin sheaf of paper that outlined in Cyrillic letters Barnett's list of
transgressions. Sergei looked it over.
Sergei rubbed his chin and turned to me. "Perhaps some of your cassettes."
"My tapes?"
"Yes," Sergei said. "What else do you have of comparable value?"
He was right. But I didn't want to give up all my tapes. With the luggage
missing, these were my sole remaining assets. "He doesn't like this kind of
music."
Sergei shook his head, "He can sell them."
"Give him the tapes," Melissa ordered.
Reluctantly, I handed over my precious store of heavy metal cassettes, which
the pink-faced officer quickly stashed in his desk drawer.
"And your cassette player," Sergei told me.

Barnett had not been ill-treated during his stay in an Uzbeki drunk tank. One
of the guards had actually bandaged his infected big toe with a filthy strip
of cotton packing. Barnett didn't thank us upon his release, taking it for
granted that his sister would come for him and bail him out yet again. While
we rode back to the hotel, I desperately tried to think of the night spent
with Melissa rather than the fact that I would have to go the rest of this
trip without any music. Somehow, in my mind, it had become a trade: All my
tapes for Melissa, or at least for her affection. And that was a fair deal.

Melissa and I were together the rest of that trip. Upon our return to Paris,
however, our affair abruptly ended. We were both in relationships, silly
college romances that were easy to slip back into. Occasionally, we ran into
each other at the American College in Paris cafeteria or in the hallways
around 31 Avenue Bosquet, and we said hello and smiled, and there was that
mutual recognition of our collective memory.
And we would be like, oh yeah, you, that was something.


Karl Taro Greenfeld

Karl Taro Greenfeld is a Knight-Bagehot Fellow at Columbia University. He is the author of "Speed Tribes" and a contributor to Vogue, Details, the New York Times Magazine, Wired and other publications. He has written for Wanderlust on Ibiza and exploring northern Thailand by foot.

MORE FROM Karl Taro Greenfeld



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