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  • So, the Cold War Is Over
  • Lailee Mendelson (bio)

I'd spent almost three years studying our enemy. Not trying to defeat them. No dead drops, honeypots, hidden cameras, bugs, or moles—this isn't that kind of story.

I'm talking about love.

Their literature, tales of blood on snow.

Their history, the same.

That phonetic fun house of a language, with an X that sounds like our H, and an H like our N. Their V-like B, S-like C, R-like P. The mirror-image R doing what I'd been raised to think a Y should.

I devoured it all. To what end, I can't say, since I never really considered what I would do with the knowledge. I had faith: whatever forces had provided me with my upper-middle-class comforts would keep me in them, no matter what path I took in life. I was free to study what I loved, and what I loved was our enemy.

Then one day, in my junior year, the enemy threw the game. Heaved aside the curtain and vanished. And suddenly, what had seemed improbable—my feet on Russian soil—became just another thing my parents could buy me.

By January I was in St. Petersburg. (It was back to being St. Petersburg.) Its streets, metro stations, bridges, and parks were being renamed—disorienting everyone—though planetarily speaking, nothing had changed. Still 59° north, and the winter sun could barely rouse itself above the horizon. For a few hours a day, the city went Cupola! Spire! Wing! with gilding, but by midafternoon shadows leaked out the bottoms of everything.

Sleepily, I attended language classes. I toured former palaces and mansions. They'd been wiped of blood and filled with art and gem-encrusted knickknacks, objects that over centuries had enchanted or enraged, depending. In the Summer Garden, I strolled down snowy paths and through alleys of tall crates—neoclassical statues protected from the cold, draped maidens in the dark.

The surface of the Neva was frozen, but beneath the ice water flowed. It passed down canals, through the spirit of the mad monk, then out our bathroom tap . . . [End Page 21]

A kettle full of boiling water added to a sink filled with cold. That's how my roommate and I washed each other's hair; our shower never warmed. Nora had the kind of hair I'd always wanted, fair and frictionless. An amateur dancer, she'd taped stills of her favorite stars above her bed. They were photographed in black and white, and in all sorts of tulle, feathers, and poses—but each with their hands held just so, the index finger slightly raised, as if poised above a piano key. I recognized only two, the defectors, the ones who'd exited the enemy's theaters, slipped into cars and planes, and reemerged beneath our stage lights, where on fledgling wings of freedom they leapt (so we all liked to believe) at least a few inches higher.

Later, in the spring, Oleg would tell me that when he was with Nora—really with her, he made sure I understood—it was like running wild through a field of ripening wheat. And afterward, like lying spent in one, staring up at a blue sky.

That's what made her a good dancer, I suppose. Meaning readily attached to her body.

"But not our fucking wheat," he made sure I understood. Not radioactive wheat. Not squandered wheat that never made it into loaves. "Your wheat. Your sky. Big," he said. "Like in that song."

I could've pointed out that a country—even diminished, as his now was—twice as big as mine, that spanned eleven time zones, that encompassed tundra, taiga, steppes, mountains, and desert, was bound to have plenty of big blue sky all to itself.

But I understood him well enough.

He meant amber waves of grain. Spacious skies. Do you remember them? Mornings cloudless and perfectly blue, harbingers of nothing but smooth flights and fair-weather days?

Not like our sky now, which we understand to be a screen upon which anything at all can be projected . . .


But I'm...