The first time I called home from Russia I cried for half an hour. Thirty minutes of ugly bawling on the hard wooden bench in a phone booth at the Smolensk central post office while my father sat on the other end, speechless. He barely managed to ask, “So, how are you?” before I lost it. The pressure to talk, to connect, to make meaningful conversation before the operator cut us off was overwhelming. So was the loneliness. It was the only time I called home that year.
I never once called my girlfriend. I made excuses. It’s too expensive. It’s too complicated. The connection is terrible. Let’s stick to letters. It was 1995. There was no internet in Smolensk. No cell phones, no e-mail. Instead, I wrote her letters, double-sided on translucent air mail paper. I detailed my meals and wrote poetry. I enclosed various ephemera: ticket stubs, candy wrappers, labels peeled off of beer bottles. The occasional photo. Bits and pieces of my everyday life.
I lived in a dormitory on ulitsa Przheval’skogo, d. 31. Later she would tell me how she tried to spell out the Cyrillic letters for people: Capital-Y upside-down-capital-V period. Pi capital-P Asterix capital-E capital-B capital-A upside-down-capital-V lower-case-b capital-C capital-K O upside-down-capital-L O comma Sailboat 31. Her letters would show up in the dorm common room, Cyrillic letters staggering awkwardly across the envelope.
Even in simulated Russian her handwriting was unmistakable. She wrote in large, loopy cursive. She told me about her new job as an accompanist at a local college, about her new friends and their small dramas, about the cat she wasn’t allowed to have. She told me about her favorite professor, who happened to be the brother of a certain famous movie Sicilian (inconceivable!), and how the department worked her so hard she could barely wiggle her fingers some days.
I wrote in block capitals or a haphazard mish-mash of cursive and print. I spelled her name wrong twice in one letter, after having spelled it right just moments before. Twenty years later she still teases me about that. We filled our letters with stories and maunderings that were both too unfocused and too intense for a phone conversation.
It was a relief, in a way, that the post-Soviet postal system was so ridiculously slow. The month-long gap between letters was painful, but the ache was spread over time, not crammed into the tiny gaps between words I really wanted to say and couldn’t spit out. In my letters, not every word needed to be laden with meaning or import. I could talk about inconsequential things. I didn’t have to answer the question, “So, how are you?” She didn’t have to ask, because it was all right there, between the lines: I missed her. I loved her. I was learning a lot. I wanted to come home. I wanted to stay. I couldn’t wait to hear her voice again.