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Monday, August 16, 2010

Moscow, Through a Cloud of Smoke by Vera Pavlova

Moscow, Through a Cloud of Smoke

by Vera Pavlova, The New York Times, August 14, 2010

BREATHE in, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out. I concentrate on breathing through the surgeon’s mask, and that becomes an effort in itself. Not a simple effort, but difficult and all-important. After a while I am busy doing only that: breathe in, breathe out.

I have just arrived in Moscow. I hear the voice of a TV announcer describing the combined effects of record heat and nearby wildfires: “The level of carbon monoxide in the air is four times higher than normal. Stay indoors, whenever possible. If you have to go outside, use gauze masks.”

I have to go outside: I need to register my American husband with the Department of Visas and Registrations, as I always do, even if it is only for a six-day visit, as is the case this time. That is why I am standing in front of a mirror, wearing a mask and learning to breathe through it. My husband gives me a kiss through the mask. I try to smile. The mask stifles the smile. How am I going to smile at the Muscovites, to cheer them up, my fellow martyrs? How will they smile back at me?

Out in the street, however, I realize it is no time for smiling. The neighborhood, so familiar since my childhood, is almost invisible. There is no sky at all. The sun is there: dim and reddish-brown, the color of dried blood. You could look straight at it without your eyes tearing, were they not already tearing because of the acrid smoke. Walking through it, I see a vague outline of my old high school, of the kindergarten my daughters went to when they were younger, of the house where one of my girlfriends used to live.

Unreal, as if in slow-motion, a baby carriage appears. Passing by a backyard, I dimly see, as in a half-developed photograph, a playground: kids on swings, grandmas on benches, young mothers smoking cigarettes. I realize I am the only one wearing a mask. Breathe in, breathe out. Oh, smoke, why are you burning my eyes so fiercely?

Back home, I dash for the phone. My mother: “Your dad and I are fine. We’re smokers, aren’t we? Didn’t we always tell you smoking’s good for you?” My uncle: “I am at the dacha, parading around here in the nude; the neighbors can’t see a thing anyway.” My friend: “I know what’s happening: it’s a velvet apocalypse. A pigeon is dying on my balcony.”

I check my e-mail: a letter from a girlfriend who lives outside the city. “In our town, policemen in parade uniforms are standing along the main street, one every quarter mile. The whole town is in smoke, and these jokers with their white shirts, like ghosts. What’s the occasion? Some bigwig is passing through, in a car with darkened windows, with two ambulances and two fire engines in the motorcade.” My computer crashes: it is too hot.

Outside the temperature is 102, and I am afraid to even guess how hot it is inside the apartment: the windows are shut and caulked with cotton wool to stop the smoke, and still the smell seeps in. Fans and air conditioners vanished from stores even before the fires began, two months ago, when the heat wave first set in. Since then it has broken all records, like a high jumper continuously raising the bar. We dread the daily weather forecasts: 95, 97, 98, 100, 102, 104 (and that is no poetic license; I vouchsafe for the accuracy of these figures).

A friend recommends: “Put your bed sheets in a plastic bag and keep them in a freezer. Use them at night, and two to three hours of coolness are guaranteed. But don’t catch a cold.” We put the sheets in the freezer for a day, unfold them with a crunch at night. Alas, in two minutes they are as hot as the pillows.

Shall I ever forget the past six days and nights? Every morning we woke up in sticky sweat and dashed to the window to see if the smoke screen had lifted. No, it had become even denser. Then we watched the news reports:

“We don’t know how to get our newborn home from the maternity ward; we fear the infant may suffocate on the way.”

“We had our wedding on a ship; couldn’t even walk out on the deck.”

“Subway stations are filled with smoke; many passengers faint.”

“The number of fires has decreased, but the burning areas are expanding.”

“It was a miracle that I made it safely from the burning woods; I followed the wild animals, they led me out.”

The most frequently used quotation: “And the smoke of homeland is to us both sweet and pleasing” (from Alexander Griboyedov’s comedy “Woe from Wit,” which every Russian knows from school). The most frequently used metaphor: hell.

On the sixth day I was obliged to go out again: to de-register my husband so that we could fly back to New York. Baby carriages were still out in the street, but by this time there were many people with masks (now the pharmacies have sold out). What was there, under those masks? Certainly not smiles, judging by the eyes.
What I saw in them instead was determination, to go on. To keep breathing.

Leaving Moscow, we felt as if we were fleeing a combat zone. Even inside the smoky Sheremetyevo airport, people were wearing masks, and the visibility on the runway was no more than 380 yards.

Soon after we landed in New York, my mother called: the smoke in Moscow had lifted.

Vera Pavlova is the author of the collection of poems “If There Is Something to Desire.” This article was translated by Steven Seymour from the Russian. 


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