We were sweating – old sweat. Reminded me of the school bus on the way home in June when we had gym last period, and Mr. Hanley had sent us grunting around the track for an hour. The stench crawled through my hair, down my dirty scalp, through the 70% Rayon 30% Polyester blend dress that clung to my clammy back, and met with the locker room sneaker stink that lay in the grease between the dirt-caked and bloated pink-painted toenails stuffed into my plastic sandals. I was dirty. Tired. Seventeen. Homesick. And, considering the possibility that I could be stuck in this stinky, scary country for a long, long time.
It had been about seven hours since my Russian hosts and I returned to their apartment to find the door jam splintered and my luggage gone. This was the first time I’d been put up in a home and not a hotel. I’d spent the previous night on the floor of an 8×8 living/dining room, counting the hours until the tour was over. We had had an afternoon concert and then gathered with the local musical troupe for an extra long session of vodka and unidentifiable meat products.
Every drop and forkful was working its way back up and collecting as bitter sludge at the back of my throat. The Ban roll-on I had rolled on yesterday morning had long since given up its powder fresh. I wondered if the three Russians cramming themselves into the two-person elevator with me had more sense in not using any deodorant whatsoever. Spare themselves the disappointment when the magic ended.
The man in front of me, or on top of me, as you see it, had acne scars that stretched from his high hairline all the way down to the collar of his melon colored Hawaiian shirt. I stared at the mottled landscape of flesh, felt a breakout breaking through on my Crisco-covered forehead, and had a revelation. Were I to ever return to my grooming arsenal, the tackle box I kept, tucked under the posters of Morrissey taped to the mint green walls of my 10×10 bedroom at 39 Plain Street in Hanover, Massachusetts, I would start a purge. I’d toss the Oxy-10 skin-colored lotion, the Clearasil Foaming Face Wash and Queen Helene’s Mint Julep Mask. I’d lose the loofahs and cotton balls and Q-tips that were my chisels, the sprays and potions that set my work. Because, when push came to shove, I would sweat and secrete and slime all over my carefully crafted creation the moment I climbed into an elevator with two KGB agents and one terrified and tipsy translator.
Oxana and her hair had held up well. Before we left her in-laws and the police at their shared apartment in the tenement house outside Irkutsk, she’d taken time to re-spray AquaNet. While we waited on the bench between two glass offices, watching the men call each other and smoke Turkish cigarettes, Oxana preened. She touched up the baby blue eye shadow she carried in the impossibly large macramï¿½ bag she had slung over her shoulder, and reapplied her flamingo pink lipstick. As the elevator bounced and grinded its way to the basement lab, I saw the powder had since started to thicken and collect in the crease of her eyelids, and the gloss had turned to cake on the corners of her mouth.
The doors finally groaned open and pushed rusty air at my face. My nose twitched, insulted now by the onslaught of chemical vapors that sat in the basement. The bigger, more square shaped of the two men ushered me along, past an unsmiling uniform and into a smallish room with a large metal table.
Once, when my brother Chris and I were younger, my Dad took us with him to work. He showed us off and around the South End precinct where he worked, around the offices, the holding cells and the lab. I remember Chris saying that the lab smelled like the hospital where Mom worked – like rubbing alcohol. This place, in the basement of a brick building in Siberia, looked like the shop classroom at the high school, and smelled like the wrapper of a Polaroid film in a frat house the night after a homecoming party.
A 30ish man in a Nike baseball cap came in with a kit that looked like my traveling apothecary back home. He took out an ink pad and asked me to write my name and address on a piece of paper that was roughly the same size, color and quality of the math paper we used at school. He pressed my fingers on the sticky pad and then rolled them onto the math paper. It was done.
“For exclusionary purposes,” he said through Oxana.
I am sure that my clothes, camera, deodorant and passport were hitting the black market before the cops ever showed up, and I had no hope of ever seeing them again. For the rest of the tour, I wore the same flowered dress to every concert and sightseeing trip. A month later, the KGB had been dissolved as an official entity after assisting in the overthrow of Gorbachev. I guess I’m among the last of the people who can state truly, “I was fingerprinted by the KGB.” Six months later, a thick envelope full of reports showed up at 39 Main Street, Hanover, MA. Insurance information, I guess, if I should try to recoup my losses, the details of the failed investigation hidden clearly in Cyrillic and cop-speak.