No terrain is impossible for the Urban Cyclist. His powerful legs drive the pedals down in alternation, right, left, right, left, calculating the degree of incline by the strength required of his thigh and calf muscles for each complete revolution of the front sprocket. The soles of his feet and palms of his hands read each vibration transferred from the tires to the handlebars and frame, making microadjustments to his direction and balance at a speed faster than thought. The initial uphill stretch when he first leaves the house is short and serves to lubricate his joints and warm up his muscles. He quickly reaches Reservation Street. Its sloping cobbled lanes are separated by a grassy central reservation. Five blocks to the Strip. Knowing every inch of the way like the back of his hand doesn’t make the challenge any less dangerous for the Urban Cyclist. From one week to the next, so much can change. A resident might decide to have a new driveway put in so they can park their car in the garage more comfortably, and may have to deposit mounds of sand, gravel, and cement in the middle of the sidewalk, an example of the kind of mutant obstacle for which the true Urban Cyclist must be prepared. There are dogs that shoot out like rockets from behind walls to try to snaffle a bit of their favorite food, an unwary cyclist’s shin. Even trees, an apparently peaceful and inoffensive element of the natural world, from one week to the next push out branches and roots, which can obstruct the Cyclist’s path. Weeds sprout from the sidewalk, concealing pebbles, holes, and bricks that can catch one by surprise and cause serious accidents from which only the most skilled, experienced cyclists emerge unscathed.
This block was new to me, but its warped cornices, crumbling lintels, and broken, zigzagging fire escapes could have been ripped from my memories. The people seemed familiar, too: the woman in curlers, cigarette dangling from two fingers, leaning out a first-floor window to gossip with a neighbor on the sidewalk, a potbellied mayor holding court on a nearby stoop. Older boys with gleaming biceps who slouched in lawn chairs and played video games on a television hotwired into the streetlight. Teenage girls in suffocatingly tight jeans who caressed the rusting finials of a wrought-iron fence and kept an eye on a horde of children—black and Spanish—who ran screaming through an open hydrant.
I stepped aside as a girl, maybe seven or eight, tore past me with a water balloon. I used to be one of these kids, I thought, oblivious to the crushing heat: exactly what that made me now, forty years later (and acutely aware of the heat), I couldn’t say. Though as much at home here as anywhere else in the city, I viewed the street warily. We shared a history of sorts, but history—my history—was at best a pleasant dream from which I always awoke with an unsettling sense of loss. I had no reason to be nostalgic. As for the future, that too had always been filled with questions, which led me to suspect that, in the hours and days ahead, I would still be chasing ghosts.
Three nights after I left the Arctic Storm, I heard my name as I passed the Salty Dawg. I looked back. A small, thin man hurried after me. His walk had something hopeful, almost jaunty, in it, but his face looked tired under its graying stubble.
“Buy you a drink and we’ll talk about a job,” he called. The skipper of the Arctic Storm came out behind him, shouting, “Damn you, Jay, you’re stealing my deckhand. You’re gonna work for me, aren’t you, sweetheart?”
I let myself be herded inside, strangely elated at the thought of fishing again.
Nina got directions and headed out near the border of the province, to a village covered with undulating waves of snow, about a hundred kilometers from Rogozhin. Ksenia refused to go—her eyes ached from the glittering snow and the blinding sun—and Nina rode with a driver by the name of Vitya in a Barguzin-model van that was white and smooth, like sweet ice cream. Kirill had hired this Vitya especially for Ksenia’s side trips and allocated funds for it, but Ksenia tended to drive herself and keep the money. At that point Nina hadn’t realized that Vitya was destined to become the ambassador for all adoption in Rogozhin. The effect he had on the Spanish couples eclipsed quiet interpreter Nina and efficient Ksenia, whom the clients rarely saw and mistakenly called “the lawyer,” an error she never corrected or laughed about. Vitya was so strong and handsome that when they saw him for the first time, even the most nervous were instantly calmed. He was like a liberating warrior on a military poster. Some of those moments made Nina slightly embarrassed.
“That Vitya is so handsome,” Ksenia said that evening. “I used to think about it, like, what if I got together with him?”
“Did he hint at it?” Continue reading
Hell is truth seen too late.
— Thomas Hobbes
He knew they were doomed as any couple in the history of rotten love. He’d known it long before, actually, and yet he’d driven out here anyway, to this land of barbequed ribs and noxious air, and magicians and cretins and drunks.
The same imbecilic logic of old had held for them, as well: if they ran fast enough, they figured, if they put distance enough between them and their filth, they might still have a chance at life.
But though they’d only dragged their filth along, it wasn’t till the moment he appeared before her in his tee shirt stained with gravy and cheese, his face painted blue and teeth all black—a 240-pound fiend covered in tattoos—that the extent of their imbecility had obtained in full, the repulsion in her eyes, had he somehow doubted, its awful confirmation.
She was in the bathroom, turning herself into a “sexy gothic Martian.”
When I first fell into the water, although I was perfectly aware that this was all really happening, it felt as though I was still stuck inside a dream. I’m walking along the road, lifting my feet with that sluggishness found in dreams, that heaviness caused by the water sloshing inside my rain boots. Neither sadness, fear, nor despair, but gravity, endless and immense, has taken hold of me. I’m wandering between the houses, their numbers painted on white signs. I must be lost. It seemed I’d experienced brutal acts but could no longer remember them. No, I was simply struck by the sense of memory’s intangibility, torn between struggling to recall certain events as something concrete, and the instinct to leave them safely in the nebulous past. But such dreams were nothing new for me, and I didn’t need to fight against the confusion; to a certain extent I actually enjoyed it. Even as the surface of the water broke my fall, I wasn’t afraid. I saw pots of limp geraniums on a windowsill, the white drapes drawn, glass dolls with scarily large pupils, and green Christmas candles. I waved. As firecrackers snapped in the middle of the road, a yellow tram went by. Benny ran barking along the water’s edge, where early bluebells bloomed between patches of unmelted snow. Nothing’s the matter, Benny. This is only a dream. But no sound emerged from my throat. Benny was barking even louder. He ran into the wood that grew by the water, gradually speeding up so that in the end he was nothing but a blurry white ball, revolving with the world’s axis as its center. What could have happened to upset him? I wanted to comfort him. My love, everything’s alright. Just wait there and I’ll come right back. There’s a good boy, my love. But Benny couldn’t hear me and streaked away, passing beyond my sight. Then the incongruous figure of a postman dressed all in yellow joined the scene. He’d parked his bicycle by the side of the road and was pressing the doorbell, holding the letters in one hand. There’s no one home, so he’ll just stick the letters in the mailbox; just as I was thinking this, I felt the first stab of the cold water, piercing the top of my head and the nape of my neck and the rim of my ears. The next moment I felt the weight of the water pull me under, cold hands seizing me and tugging me down. The cold was lethal, and my limbs were rapidly becoming numb. I’d fallen into the water, I knew this perfectly well, yet I kept on mechanically lifting my feet up and down. I imagined that I was walking down a flight of stairs—stairs of water, which were rapidly extending downward as I placed my feet on the next step. Without needing to look behind me, I knew that they were disappearing as I descended, that the section I’d passed had already dissolved into the water. The thought suddenly came to me that “returning” is merely a word, not something referring to a real possibility. I was going to mumble that something had gone wrong, but my frozen lips wouldn’t part. Icy water had seeped in between them when I first fell in, freezing them into immobility after my initial cry of distress. Water bearing the deep chill of midwinter, water that pierces and penetrates warm winter clothes, cold enough to carry off my soul. A devil was stabbing me with an ice poker. When I broke the surface I’d felt a pain as though my lips had been gashed on sharp rocks, as though a bone had broken in my left side, so extreme that I saw fireworks flash in front of my eyes.