Texas and Robert

Robert says I should go to an agency.

“An agency?” I ask.

“They’ll help you find a job,” he says and sighs.  I’m pretty sure I hear him sigh – a soft release that usually marks the moment when frustration begins to bump against hopelessness.

I try to imagine what Robert could be thinking right now, a painstaking and ungrateful task.  A little less than a year ago, he nobly offered to marry a Russian to save her from the clutches of the Soviet state.  He was going to bring her to the land of capitalism and freedom where she would immediately feel at ease since she was already fluent in English.  She would live with him for the first few months before she’d find a teaching job, helping him with his Russian grammar and pronunciation, listening to him practice the oboe, cooking minute steak.  Maybe she would even stay living with him, providing Karen the Slavic professor didn’t mind this arrangement, providing the new foreign wife didn’t become a stone around his neck, dragging him down the slope of routine existence from the heights of classical music and cosmic research.

She seemed mature and independent, cynical of the Soviet circus around her, eager and ready to make a new life.  She seemed learned and well read.  He thought she would look around, get used to the eight-hour time difference, and plunge into the culture, just like he did on his six-week stay in Leningrad.  All by himself, for instance, last summer he ventured into a gastronom near the university dorm in search of yogurt, puzzling the pot-bellied woman behind the counter who didn’t seem to know the word.  He was pronouncing it correctly, he was sure of that, rolling the tongue against his front upper teeth, just as his Swarthmore professor had taught him.  Nevertheless, the woman stared at him with annoyance, her arms folded across her stained, white-coated stomach.  Why did all Russian saleswomen wear white coats, as if they were doctors or lab technicians?  Yogurt, he repeated again, only to watch her shrug and turn away.  He found another store and asked again because he was persistent and unafraid in Leningrad.  He even befriended a black marketeer who had approached him at a metro station entrance, asking to exchange dollars into rubles at a rate of one to three.  The black marketeer, Valery, invited him to his apartment at the end of the metro line, where his wife was doing the laundry in a Finnish washing machine – Valery’s pride – parked in the living room, which, as it turned out, wasn’t a living room but a bedroom with a folding table and a sleeper couch against the wall.  There are no living rooms in Russia, said Valery, a little culture lesson he immediately tucked away.  Entering stores, asking questions, making friends.  All despite the fact that his Russian was not nearly as fluent as her English.  He couldn’t imagine she knew so little about this country – less, it seems, than he knew about Russia.  He couldn’t fathom her being so passive and incurious, so unwilling to blend in.  He felt disappointed.  He felt trapped.  He couldn’t understand how a smart, English-speaking woman with a green card and a roof over her head wouldn’t be able to figure out how to find a job or what to buy in a supermarket to make dinner.  A supermarket much better stocked than any yogurt-deficient gastronom in Leningrad.