Avigayl Sharp



I am apprehended outside of the Communist conference by an old man named Sergei. The first round of speakers have finished their speaking. Now there are groups of people standing outside, huddled with their jacket collars turned up, and groups of people standing inside partaking of a snack spread: coffee, tea, small shortbread cookies. Some of these people are Russian and some of them are American and some are from countries that are neither Russia nor the United States, but what they all have in common is that they know more about Marx than I do.
     I would very much like some snacks for myself but am afraid of becoming a nuisance at the Communist conference. In a certain way I have always feared that it was my fate to someday become a nuisance at the Communist conference, so I am behaving carefully, discreetly, with what I believe could be considered politesse. I sit on a wooden bench outside the gallery in which the Communist conference is being held, my knees tucked neatly into each other, smoking a cigarette and quietly communicating with my boyfriend in English. I partake in no snacks. 
     Sergei has been eyeing us for a while, from another bench two benches down from ours. Then he is sitting beside me on our bench, wanting to know where we are from, what our names are, what this hubbub is all about. He did not come here for the Communist conference, he says, but it is open to the public, and he is intrigued. He holds up a flyer, points at a picture of Marx, says Marx, and laughs slyly, as if we have just shared a private joke. Sergei looks a bit like Santa Claus. He has a large face that I am afraid of, a large stomach, and large brown shoes. I worry that Sergei's presence is drawing attention to me. I worry about my hard-won aura of care, discretion, and politesse.
     I am a Muscovite, he says, jamming his thumb proudly into his chest. He tells us that he listened to my boyfriend speak but could not understand what he was talking about.
     Maybe it is my English, he offers, but I can tell that he doesn't believe it.
     Oh no no no, my boyfriend says. I'm sure it was not your English. I'm sure it was me.
     On one side of me my boyfriend speaks animatedly to Sergei about the foreclosure of utopic imagination. On my other side Sergei responds with equal animation. My boyfriend and Sergei appear to be getting along very well, although I am uncertain if either one completely understands what the other is saying. I glance down and am grateful to my knees for still looking very neat. I think my knees could win an award. I try to decide if I am feeling oppressed as a woman.
     In Moscow it is summer and cold. We have neither of us been here before. I am freeloading on my boyfriend's university money. They pay him to go to the Communist conference. They pay me to watch him at the Communist conference, and to not make a nuisance of myself.



That man was a spy, I tell my boyfriend. It is afternoon. For now we have left the Communist conference. The clouds are clearing, the day smells shiny, in the shadows of an overpass finely dressed women let their folded jackets hang stiffly from the crook of an arm, democracy is a sham, there remains the question of the Absolute, there remain the questions of social reproduction, surveillance, the growing superfluity of a surplus labor population; our Airbnb isn't far.
     I don't know, my boyfriend says. I think he was just a guy.
     We walk single-file now, down a narrow street in this district of trendy galleries and larger buildings that appear to be municipal, though here I can't tell what's municipal, what's residential, what's something else altogether. We pass a bank. Somewhere nearby there is a river, but I'm not sure in which direction. It isn't the kind of thing you, I, can smell. We pass a mall. My boyfriend would like to visit a Russian H&M and see if the clothes are different from in the States; I say no, later, that sounds boring. We pass a large train station whose loud-speaker announcements carry into the street a woman's voice that is less than a woman's voice. Certain words I can understand: something about being cautious, something about an event that will happen at a specific time. I experience sun on a part of my body that is cold. We pass a stand in which a toothy man sells used paperbacks and candy bars. We pass a woman begging on the street. We pass a small brown dog. We turn onto a residential road lined with long, rectangular buildings, yellow and slatted, little symmetrical box windows like drawings on a paper grid. From here an alleyway that spirals shell-like, curling around itself, edged with more buildings, these of gray stone, a park at the center, discrete colors, green park, gray buildings, blue signs naming the street followed by a fraction that means nothing to me, asphalt, three old women on a bench who smile and nod as we pass. They sit with their knees touching gently. In this city I can tell that I am not as beautiful as I had once hoped I was.
     We enter one of the grey buildings and let a frighteningly small elevator carry us up to the third floor. On the landing there is a man asleep in an armchair, a brimming ashtray on a white table, one fresh stub still releasing its fragile furls of smoke. Large windows open out onto this corner of the city: trees; visible behind them the domed head of a building; visible behind it a many-storied Stalinist apartment block; visible behind it the sky like a big blue bowl.
     Through a double set of doors and down the hall lies the one-bedroom apartment that is ours for the duration of the Communist conference. The apartment belongs to a woman named Katrina, who also owns the unit directly above, where she lives with her mother and her son. In our apartment there are charcoal drawings and acrylic paintings hanging on the brown walls, a zebra-striped couch, a large television, a desk where my boyfriend jots down notes for his dissertation, colorful tiles on the kitchen counter. . .
     ...He was a governmental spy, I say. An agent. Infiltrating the Communist conference. You shouldn't have told him your last name. They're going to arrest you at the airport. They're going to put you in a little room. And I will be forced to choose. Do I stay here to support you? Do I return to America? How will we afford a lawyer?
     Now that I have left the Communist conference I am free once more to be a nuisance. I kick my sneakers off and remove my pants and stick my head into the fridge. I see boiled eggs, pickled herring, a slab of good yellow butter. I retrieve the butter and slice it thick, like cheese, arranging the wedges on a hunk of black bread.
     You're being paranoid, my boyfriend says. We aren't surrounded by Russian spies. No one is watching you.
     It's taken him until now to untie the laces of his fancy boots, which are actually just regular boots, but are what he wears when he needs to be taken seriously by other Marxist intellectuals. 
     It's funny, he says thoughtfully, that people used to be scared of Russian Commie Spies. And now you're scared of Russian Anti-Commie Spies.
     Are you implying that I am prejudiced? I say. The butter has left a glossy coating on my lips, and I wonder if it makes me look pretty.
     Of course not, he says.
     I'm not prejudiced, I say. My mom grew up in the Soviet Union. My mom was a refugee. My mom is an immigrant. My mom is a Jew. The Jews have been a scapegoated people, historically speaking.
     Your mom thinks all Russians are spies, he reminds me.
     It's true that my mother has been texting me daily, telling me to make sure my boyfriend keeps his big mouth shut in public.
     I think, I say, I am feeling oppressed as a woman. 
     There are loud noises of satisfaction coming out of me for my boyfriend to hear.
     Give me, he says.
     Mine, mine, mine, mine, I whisper, and continue to absorb the food into my sack of a body.



Outside the confines of the Communist conference I at last have the advantage over my boyfriend. He knows no Russian, but I can, slowly and with effort, sound out the Cyrillic signage that surrounds us. I can speak some Russian, too, but only the baby words. I can say kitty-cat. I can say little cup of milk.
     In Russian I say please to my boyfriend.
     He says please back, but sounds stupid doing it.
     We go on like this for several minutes, waiting for the train to arrive.



In Moscow I find myself wishing that my boyfriend was a little less nice and a little less good. On the second day of the Communist conference he approaches those who have just spoken and enquires enthusiastically about their work. I make eyes at a young American adjunct who studies the corporate turn in Soviet socialism; he wears tight pants: I have decided that he is cruel and self-absorbed. The adjunct ignores me. A famous Marxist scholar is here, and I watch her speak kindly to the groups of Russian and American and German graduate students that surround her like bees. I watch her smile encouragingly at less self-assured panelists. I watch her ask thoughtful, intelligent questions. I watch her nice mouth. She wears elegant black patent-leather heels. I decide that I would like to be the kind of woman who wears elegant black patent-leather heels and smiles generously at those who admire me, known for my warmth, my ease in crowds of strangers, my robust, jocular affect; I decide that I would like to be quiet and cold, a black and white photograph from 1968, perfect composition of rigor and elegance, an intelligence described in online articles as razor-sharp, my finger on the pulse of the generation; I decide that I would  like to die for the cause; I decide that I would like to become a plus-sized model or maybe that I should grow out my bangs...
     I am sitting on my bench again. This time I have ventured into the gallery hall and obtained for myself three small cookies, oiling themselves into a napkin, and a paper cup of instant coffee. I smoke and eat my cookies slowly. In one of the groups my boyfriend is gesturing wildly at a tiny woman with short blue hair. She gestures back, more wildly. Their conversation looks vivid and intense. On my phone I skim an article from 2019 about Russian women's beauty secrets, and then an article from 1992 about the effect of American advertisements on Russian women's body image, and then a forum post detailing how one might land a date with a Russian woman.
     Hello, Sergei says. Once more he has found me on the bench.
     Hello, I say. I offer him a cookie so as not to appear rude.
     Thank you, but no, Sergei says.
     We are silent for a moment. I spend some time thinking about getting arrested.
     Have you been enjoying the conference? I ask finally, as if I am the hostess of an intimate dinner party.
     No, Sergei says. It is not very good, I think.
     Again we are silent.
     Sergei says, I like your husband, and points to my boyfriend in case I have forgotten which one he is.
     My boyfriend—he is very smart and interesting. He has curly hair. He has a pleasant disposition. He thinks I am a nice lady. He enjoys what it means to be around me.
     Still, there are days when I look at him washing my dishes in the apartment we share, for which he pays two thirds of the rent and I a third, and think: what is this man doing in my house?



I am awake in my nightgown, and hungry.
     There isn't any moon.
     Which is just as it should be.
     In bed I have my imaginings. I imagine that my boyfriend and I have a baby and that we are here to show our baby the sights. We want our baby to grow up cultured. We want it to have a healthy disdain for the upper class, and to be active in left politics. Our baby is fat and pink and beautiful, and we love it with an intensity that borders on obsession. We are assured by our friends who have babies that this is a normal way to feel. We are invested in our baby cultivating its own independent self; at the same time, there are certain things that we want our baby to do and to be, and these conflicting desires mean that we often stay awake at night holding fervent, whispered referendums while the baby sleeps in its crib. There is a new strain on our relationship. We argue about removing by force the collar of our baby's penis.



On the third and final day of the Communist conference we decide to ditch the afternoon's forums and take the train into the city center. The Moscow metro is among the deepest in the world; it is the palace of the people. I stand backward on the escalator, facing my boyfriend as we descend. Above me, a hill of businessmen avert their gaze.
     The station is high-ceilinged, cavernous. Everyone behaves politely. Their bodies proceed at the correct pace in the correct direction. Wordlessly a young man helps a young woman with her suitcase. She nods in reply. On solid ground now, my boyfriend puts his hand on top of my hand.
     I miss Sergei, I tell him.
     I thought Sergei was a spy, he says.
     Yes, I concede, but he was my spy.
     The train takes us away.
     Outside we find the entrance to Saint Basil's Cathedral. Its domes are blue, yellow, red, green. The cathedral is flanked by small, well-kept lawns and several kiosks where one may purchase tickets and audio guides. In Moscow it is my job to speak to grocery store cashiers, security guards, the woman in the ticket kiosk. It is my boyfriend's job to pay for things.
     He pays for two tickets and two audio tours, and we make our way to a different kiosk to pick up the guides that look like old telephone receivers. I say excuse me to everyone I pass: the guard who searches my small backpack, the couple kissing in the entryway of the cathedral. The church, I explain to my boyfriend, was built on the orders of Ivan the Terrible upon the capture of Kazan.
     Do you like it? I ask him. Do you like it here?
     There are flowers on the walls, everywhere I look, the most beautiful red flowers.
     Later we stand outside and watch the white clumps of pollen as they stutter through the air. My boyfriend tries to catch one and misses. I, allergic, turn away.  A blue-suited security guard paces the square with intensity, his hands clasped behind his back.



Later still my boyfriend leaves me to use the bathroom. Alone, I pace the length of the square twice.
     I am very lonely without him.
     It takes so long for him to come back.
     I would like to find a decorative fountain; I'm sure there must be one around here somewhere.
     The emptiness of history means that I might put something inside of it, as if into a large cardboard box.
     This is what I'm thinking as I walk.
     Though when my boyfriend returns I only say, I was just getting my steps in!
     And in turn he tells me that the bathrooms are very nice, very clean, as good as one could hope for, the best, really, it might even be said, in the world.