Journalist Jada Perlmutter becomes the story she seeks as she travels from Soviet Moscow to the mountainous "South" where her lover Vahan plans to take up being a guerrilla fighter in a new breakaway state. Injured, Jada is transported back to Moscow. Years later, in NYC, the taste of ash in her mouth sends Jada back to the Caucasus to conclude the story she had left unfinished.
Moscow's cold grabbed and pulled at my neck, setting the nerves there to twirling and the muscles to eating my throat, to tightening, like kudzu's ever-encroach around the trees back home in the Virginia mountains. This cold pierced, like, like the time Timmey, a day off from kindergarten for some reason or another, like the time he stabbed at my neck with our mother's pincushion full of pins, dull pricks and infuriating tingles, their flat sides stunning more than hurt. Like many things, the pain was more in the attempt. He could have killed me, I guess, maybe, if a needle had loosed. Strayed. We stood in the living room, the stitched fir-green carpet spreading in the abyss between us. We stood, staring. A second or two, I rubbed at the red now my neck's markings. Insult mixed with fear, I lunged forward and whacked the side of his head with my toy's flat side, that kind of paddle with the ball attached on a rubber band, that kind that after breaking (they always broke) was carried in a purse to threaten whuppings. But when Mom raced in after I started crying, neither Timmey nor I, neither said a word. Nary a peep. We stood together, looking at her, looking at our living room, at most of what was our world.
For sure, mid-November Moscow cold bit just like this: common and vengeful. Back in the States, I had forgotten how bitter-cold Moscow gets. Skin is not something you usually notice, but here, mine ached dull, like an asleep limb at that moment your nerves scatter. Besides, my neck itched. Too freezing to take off gloves, so I scratched through my scarf. I scratched, looked the street up-down, up-down again, and tried to decide which way to go on the Arbat, on the boulevard.
The late morning was angry, a pitching bustle. From rickety, wood-framed balconies fell sharpened icicle stakes. I looked at the balconies. Only a couple of meters to the ground. On the ground, cheap boots packed and repacked the crackling snow.
1991. Jada Perlmutter, twenty-three. Alone. Hopeless. Empty-handed. And....
These things making her, me, Oh-so-Soviet.
T. Timmey-T. Brother Mo. Balcony.
My neck was itching me to death from the cold. Off came these damned thermal gloves; my nails dug underneath to the scarf. Relief. Tingles. Sweet relief. Onto the low buildings the sky opened and poured forth a golden hue. Rebundling, I jerked my gloves almost on, knocking into a man going by. "Watch out, devushka," he barked. Yes, watch out, girl. What I needed. Yes. I needed to watch out. I no longer paid such close attention. Pay attention!
Watch. Wake up and smell the bacon-coffee-vodka-puke-story. I needed a story, T. You had a story. You went and had your story. I needed a new story. According to the editor I had just cornered and badgered at Newsweek, I wrote sad-sack sappy babushka ballads no one wanted to read. Well, she didn't really say it quite that way, but I'd heard her nonetheless. Alliteration teetered my skull as she droned about my uselessness. I can't give you any advice, she said, and no, I don't know anyone looking for stories like this. From the bureau to the Arbat, I'd sung my own praise: "sad-sack sappy." On a loop in my head: "sad-sack sappy."
A real story. I needed a real story.
Earlier this year, spring in New York, New Baby magazine-not exactly what I'd had in mind when I studied journalism: elite preschools, test-marketing baby bottles, which homely white shoes had the best soles-my copy landing between Pampers and foot cream ads. Everywhere else the world snapped like winter peas: empires fell, Scuds dropped, masses moved, dictators dove. My brother Timmey covered a war, and I stood in an office overlooking Madison, as our dad would say, with my finger implanted, whistling Dixie.