“Are you excited?” Alan asks, and from his face I can see that he is. I nod, but it is a tentative response. There is a dark fear lodged inside me like a rock, the old dread of facing Soviet militia and customs agents, the old panic at being powerless and guilty before the stone-faced guards of my country’s borders. I don’t want to admit to Alan that I am scared, but he can see it from my stooped shoulders and my bitten lips. I stare at my boarding pass, questioning my sanity when I suggested to him a few months earlier that we could spend July in Leningrad. It sounded so exciting then, when the trip was hypothetical and airy as a cotton cloud. We were thrilled to find inexpensive tickets: People Express to London, Aeroflot to Leningrad, and the thought of seeing everyone, of walking on the streets of my city again almost made me breathless. But now, looking at the Aeroflot plane parked behind glass, I feel as I did in the waiting room of the Leningrad dental clinic when our first grade teacher took the whole class for an annual visit of drilling and patching.
There is nothing to be afraid of, I tell myself. My Soviet passport says “resides abroad” stamped in official purple ink, and our marriage license is safely packed in my handbag. I may still be a Soviet citizen, but I am married to an American who is right here, next to me, monitoring my every step. No border guard would dare keep me on – or off – Soviet soil, I tell myself. Why then are my palms so clammy? Why can’t I be as nonchalant as all these Western tourists?
In London it is still morning, and we join a group of British passengers waiting for our flight to Russia. They leaf through their guidebooks with maps of Leningrad, all except a woman in her fifties, whose face, beneath a layer of Western creams and cosmetics, carries faint marks of her Slavic heritage. She is talking to a man who may be her English husband as she glances in my direction because from my tensed mouth and slumped back she knows I am Russian. She probably feels sorry for me, or maybe she recognizes herself in this same airport thirty years earlier, terrified before her first visit back home.
On the plane, we are told to sit where we like since there are no assigned seats on the boarding passes. A stewardess in a fur hat waves her arm magnanimously as if presenting us with the interior of her plane as a gift – “sit any place you want,” she says. When we stuff the overhead compartments and claim all window seats, more passengers are allowed on the plane. It turns out that after stopping in Leningrad, our flight continues on to Sri Lanka. Where were these people before boarding? I ask Alan. Did they keep them in a separate room? They are all dark-skinned and apologetic, and by now it is clear that they have been doomed to middle seats, trying to find space for their carry-ons. The magnanimous stewardess has vanished, and the passengers bound for their non-European destination are left to figure out by themselves the lack of basic service my national airline has to offer.
“Wow,” Alan says with astonishment and disbelief, watching a man next to us trying to stuff his bag under the front seat.
The engines start without warning, and with the speed of a military jet, the plane roars down the runway and rivets into the low sky. The sudden thrust of the engine presses my back into the chair; my ears pop. The stewardess, wearing an orange life vest to demonstrate the emergency procedures, falls into a chair, the fur hat rolling down the aisle.
Alan takes my hand and squeezes his fingers around it.
“Welcome to Russia,” I say, although I don’t know if he can hear me behind the thunder of the engines.