On their first morning in America, the two girls walked the beach boardwalk. Few of the booths were open, since it was still before Memorial Day. They tried on sunglasses, creaking the rotating stands and posing for each other with pouted lips. The vendors treated them like tourists, and Sasha and Kristina played to them, haggling over prices before moving on. Sasha’s first purchase in America was a postcard and stamps for $1.25. The picture was of an aerial view of the North Carolina coast, long lines of breakers layering towards the sand. On the back of the card, she wrote a note to her mother in Russian.
She wrote: The sand is soft like powdered milk.
She wrote: Tell Maksim to ask Nina Andreyevna for help with geometry, I’ll have money to pay her when I get back. Maksim was her younger brother.
I miss you, she wrote in closing, though she didn’t, not yet.
The other girl, Kristina, didn’t write any postcards home. At first, Sasha thought that her new friend was not close to her family, but then she realized that just the opposite was true. Postcards were the tokens of strangers; Kristina’s family was bound together in ways that could not be inked out, stamped, and then dropped in a mail slot.
The two girls had met at Dulles airport, both of them bound for the same stretch of Atlantic shore to work in the same summer jobs for foreign students. Sasha had been the first to arrive. There’d been some hitch with the luggage and she’d stood waiting in the Dulles baggage claim. When the neighboring carousel ground to life and started tilting suitcases from below, Sasha saw the Moldovan girl and recognized something of herself—maybe it was the way Kristina hung back while she waited for her suitcase to appear out of the clanking darkness, or how she held her passport in one hand, should anyone demand to see it. Sasha had caught up to her in the line for foreign citizens. “Work and Travel?” she asked in English. Kristina must have seen the red passport in Sasha’s hand, because she answered the question with a single word: Da.
Waiting in line, they looked at each other’s passports and found that their birthdays were just twelve days apart in the same year of 1991. They’d been born fellow citizens of the same country, just weeks before the breakup of the Soviet Union. That gave them a strange intimacy, as though they’d been separated at birth. They sat next to each other on the plane to North Carolina. They shared the forty-five-dollar taxi ride from the airport, down the coast and over the causeway to the island, where they hoped to find jobs for the summer. [End Page 55] Neither had lined up summer lodging yet; they split a $125 night in the island’s Holiday Inn. Most of the girls’ money was borrowed, and most of this money had gone toward their plane tickets, and their mandatory health insurance, and their luggage that would not shame them in the far-abroad. Neither of them could afford more than a night in the Holiday Inn, and that first afternoon they’d rented an efficiency apartment, deciding at some point—neither of them would remember later exactly how or when—that they should live together. Their sublet, in a converted motor inn from the fifties that wrapped around an airless concrete courtyard, cost them each $125 a week plus a security deposit of $300. What damage could they do that was not already done? Mold darkened the grout in the shower, and a tiny mushroom grew in a corner of the bathroom where the linoleum curled up. It didn’t matter. Sasha had seen worse. She even could identify the mushroom; it was not an edible variety. The apartment had only a single mildew-blotched queen-size mattress, but they could double up, as it was cheaper that way. Sisters, they joked. This sort of arrangement was not unusual where they came from, though still...