The eighty degree weather we’d had at breakfast in a California border town transitioned sharply into the fifties by lunchtime at the Grand Canyon. I exchanged my flip flops for socks and hiking shoes, threw a jean jacket over my summer dress, and donned a beanie, the only warmer things I had easy access to. My dress whipped around my legs in the chilly wind. The weather was unexpectedly far from ideal for sightseeing, but we couldn’t drive past the Grand Canyon and not stop.
Dizzy with the height and blinded by the bright sunshine, so brilliant that it washed out all color around me, I sat on a step near a railing and peered over the canyon’s edge. What was I doing here? My ex-fiancé had always wanted to visit the Grand Canyon. Once again, I had picked the wrong man. Desperate to get married while I still had a chance for a baby, I had rushed towards the end zone like an all-star linebacker, barely noticing the red flags I trampled on my way to a touchdown. The signs weren’t subtle either – right after he proposed, my ex- fiancé sank into a deep depression. That’s what every bride-to-be wants – a man who gets depressed at the thought of marrying her! I’m grateful that clarity did come, unpleasant though it was, reality’s bright light too painful for my pale eyes and the air around it so cold.
I was poised on the edge of a great big hole, not unlike the Grand Canyon itself – awesome, terrifying, and full of possibility (with a much bigger emphasis on terrifying and marginal excitement over the possibility). I had left Los Angeles and was returning to the east coast. I had no plan. My contract job had ended; I’d lost my home and husband-to-be, and several of our mutual friends from the beach volleyball league had dropped me and remained friends with him because he was the better player! What next? I asked the canyon, but my question simply echoed around the vast expanse.
One of my traveling companions, my good friend’s teenage nephew, called me over to take a picture of him at the canyon’s edge. I didn’t realize how cold I’d become until I stood up. A foreign tourist offered to take a picture of us together. “You two look nice. Maybe you get married?” I’m old enough to be the boy’s mother, and I suspect he’s gay. So not the answer I was looking for. To combat the decision paralysis I frequently face, I’ve taken to asking – nature, God, the universe, whatever greater power is out there – for signs to guide me. Mostly I’ve found that it has a pretty good sense of humor.
Too cold to admire the views any longer, I went in to the Grand Canyon bookstore and listened to some Indian music CDs. I didn’t understand the words, but the chants and tones, flutes and drums soothed me. I picked up one of the CDs – and fell in love. I know – ridiculous, right? It was crazy to be in the middle of a bookstore drooling over a photo of an Indian who probably lived one hundred years before I was born, but I felt some kind of connection. His soul spoke to me through his eyes; I couldn’t remember that language anymore, not in words, but I was reassured. He stood like a god who simply was, homelessness helpless against the divinity inside. All I needed was in me. Have I always been afraid? I wanted to ask him, but I already knew the answer.
He had longish hair held back with a band around his forehead, dangling earrings, and finely chiseled, regal features. This Indian was hot. He reminded me of someone – The Rock maybe, with hair, but that wasn’t quite it. I realized with a shock that the Indian reminded me of Vlad, my first Russian boyfriend. Something about his lips, or the expression in his eyes, or maybe he just reminded me of myself, how I was once, or could have been; of something I had forgotten but needed to know. I met Vlad during my semester abroad in Moscow the spring of my junior year of college, in 1989.
It was a crazy period in Russia – the time of long bread lines and empty supermarkets, of prohibition’s bootleg taxi drivers selling vodka out of the trunks of their cars, of ordinary Russians using every and any opportunity to ask all the questions about the west that they had been denied for seventy years. It was a heady feeling to be an American there then; we were adored and spoiled like children, and the more ignorant and naïve we were, the more Russians liked us. That worked perfectly fine for me then, my first time out of the country, my knowledge of international affairs as rudimentary as my spoken Russian.
My very first step into the country was a hesitant one across an abyss from train to platform, made all the more impossible by my seventy-five pound jumbo-size suitcase, which a stout woman walking by grabbed from me to help me across. Overwhelmed with gratitude, I mumbled an amazed spasibo before she was off, absorbed into the bustling multitude of gray coats and fur hats. Who said Russians weren’t friendly or helpful? Russia was all fascinatingly exotic, but a part of me felt comfortable immediately. Were ancestral memories stored in my bones? I’d always been drawn to the country and never knew why.
This was the time of Gorbachev’s perestroika, and the restructuring had been taking its toll on the economy. I had been terrorized with tales of hardship, deprivation, and empty supermarkets. Certainly the stores weren’t full like the ones in the west, but every time I went in one, I found something I could use. Once the one down the street from our dorm had a huge cage-like bin in the middle of the store just full of scratchy brown toilet paper. I was thrilled! There was nothing else in the store, but – toilet paper! What a luxury! Another time I found an enormous crate of oranges. And people in America thought there was no fruit in Russia! I scoffed at their ignorance as I bought a big bag to share with my roommates. Pickles were in plentiful supply, as was pickled cabbage, and I remember making quite happily (albeit quite often) rice and even macaroni and cheese (a combination my Russian friends found amusing but tasty). Okay, by the end of my four month stay, I was really, really sick of pickled cabbage, but I met Vlad early on in my glorious days of grateful exploration.
Internet didn’t exist yet, and I hadn’t even brought a Moscow guide book with me. I searched out tourist attractions on the map our study abroad program directors had given us, and one day after class I decided to check out the zoo. (I’m not sure why this was my destination of choice – certainly Moscow had more interesting attractions; I can only think that since it occupied an actual territory of some size, it was very noticeable on the map.)
My roommates didn’t want to go with me, so I set out on my own. I exited the Krasnopresnenskaya metro station and looked around up on the street, but nothing looked particularly zoo-like, and I didn’t see any signs. It was late March, still damp and cold, the pavement dark and slick where the last of the snow had melted in the shadows. People rushed around, eyes lowered, jostling each other with nylon bags of potatoes or carrots. Stalwart babushki ambled about like sausages, their heads wrapped in cream colored scarves tucked neatly into the necks of their wool coats. One such woman was selling pirozhki (greasy rolls with meat or cabbage baked inside) out of a wagon, and I got in line to buy a few. I was so busy digging up and deciphering my change, that I didn’t notice the guys in line in front of me.
“Devushka,” One of them turned to me and held out a pirozhok. “Here you go.”
I looked up, flustered, and saw him. It was like the Cherry 7-Up commercial from the 80s with Matt LeBlanc – my standard then for the pinnacle of romantic moments. I was twenty, in a foreign country, and a beautiful boy was looking into my eyes and offering me food. (I had really wanted two pirozhki, but I took the one and babbled something, incoherently I hope, about having money to buy my own. Good grief.) He asked me if I wanted to go to the movies with him and his friends, grabbed my hand like it was the most natural thing in the world, and we were off.
We went to Dom Kino, the elite movie theater for people in the entertainment industry. I would never have been able to go there on my own, but Vlad and his friends were students at VGIK, Moscow’s famous film school. I don’t remember what the movie was; it had already started, and it seemed to be some kind of political documentary. I understood very little. The boys were bored after twenty minutes or so and we left. Up until that time, I had never walked out of a movie theater before the film was finished, and I was scandalized. We went back to the dorm where one of the students organized an impromptu party with bread and cured meats, the ubiquitous pickled cabbage, and some cheese. Vlad walked me to the metro stop when it was time for me to leave and wrote instructions for me to meet him the next day: 3:45, Botanichesky Sad, last car from the center, Vlad.
I had no idea how long it would take to get to the Botanichesky Sad metro stop – at the exact opposite end of the city – and I grossly underestimated. I think I was probably forty-five minutes late, but thankfully, he waited. I stepped off the last car, and there he was, beaming in his happiness to see me, not angry at all. His full name was Vladislav, Vlad for short (pronounced Vlaht), and he was studying cinematography at VGIK. His father worked as a cameraman for Russian state television, and they had lived for several years in eastern Germany before the wall came down.
He had been learning camera from his father ever since he was little. In 1986, when he was serving his obligatory time in the army, he was sent to film the Chernobyl disaster. I don’t remember whether they gave him a camera or he had his own, but his superiors picked him specifically because he knew how to shoot. A Kazakh comrade was ordered to go as well, simply because he happened, unluckily enough, to be sleeping in the bed next to him. The officers who drove them on to the territory had some kind of protective gear on, but Vlad and the Kazakh soldier weren’t given any. They were dropped off at the site of the disaster and told to film until they were picked up. Both of the boys were hospitalized afterwards for radiation poisoning.
The story filled me with indignation – the Soviet authorities had no right! How could they jeopardize the lives of their soldiers like that? Who knew what kind of health problems they would have in the future? Vlad shrugged. The Kazakh soldier had gone on to get married, and apparently he and his wife were popping out healthy babies like rabbits. Vlad wasn’t worried. What could he do anyway? Indeed, he didn’t have much recourse in a country that valued the collective so much more highly than the individual. Something like this could never happen in America! (I asserted ever so confidently.)
I was never quite sure whether Vlad’s craziness was a zest for life or a death wish. He’d grab my hand and run across four lanes of traffic, cars swerving to avoid us and honking in annoyance. Breathless on the other side, he’d kiss me and laugh, exhilarated. On the way to a party, we’d pack seven or eight people into a tiny car, me on someone’s lap, my head crooked and immovable against the ceiling, as he stuck his head out the window and cheered. I left Moscow with him to meet his family in Kostroma – completely against the rules of my study program and of the Soviet government, as foreigners were not allowed to travel freely then – and I even left Russia on a train once to visit his relatives in Ukraine. I spent more and more time with him and soon stopped going to class at all.
This was not like me. I was a rule follower, completely out of my comfort zone. Every minute with him both thrilled and terrified me. He was a rule breaker, partly because he was from a privileged family, and partly because the climate in the country was changing. The new, open policy of glasnost allowed slightly more freedom of expression and fewer repercussions, and he seized the opportunity with a relish that made me dizzy.
I was smitten. He was good looking, talented, smart; he knew absolutely what he was doing in life and why, and he loved every minute of his creative endeavors. He believed in himself, and he believed in me. When I was in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) on an excursion with my study abroad group, he amazed me and all of my classmates by calling me at the hotel. I hadn’t known the name of the hotel to tell him before we left, but he called every hotel in the city until he found our group. When the babushka monitoring our floor told me I had a call, I couldn’t imagine who it was from. I don’t know what crazy story he concocted to get her to agree to give the phone to me.
I wonder if his affection was too much for me, if I was too uncomfortable, too overwhelmed with so much effort and devotion. I don’t remember. I was immensely flattered and totally fell for him; I trusted him without questioning his feelings. I’m not sure I’ve felt that way since then. I do know that I couldn’t reciprocate in the same way; I couldn’t allow myself to fall in headlong after my emotions, at least not completely. I needed to be rational, practical; I was constricted by the way I thought things should be.
I’d left a boyfriend back at college. He wrote me all of once in four months, so I didn’t feel bad about my relationship with Vlad, but I drew the line at having sex. I mean, technically, I still had a boyfriend, and cheating on him in that way would be really wrong. How silly of me! I’d never been so head over heels in love and I let a scruple leftover from somewhere (because it definitely didn’t come from inside my heart) dictate my non-participation. I would go back to the U.S., break up with this boyfriend, come back to Russia at some point in the future, and then we could properly consummate our relationship. I had it all figured out.
He wanted me to stay in Russia at the end of my program. It wouldn’t have been easy, but I could have arranged it; another woman in our program stayed in Moscow to be with her new boyfriend. The thought of it, however, filled me with terror. I needed to finish my program! I needed to do my last year of college and graduate! My parents would never approve – they hadn’t wanted me to come to Russia in the first place! So many rules governing my life; none of them questioned by me; none of them true to what my heart wanted to do. I let fear restrict the natural flow of love while I tried to control the outcome, and I really thought I could have my heart’s desire – on my timetable – while keeping everyone content. Not so.
I was given an amazing opportunity, and I was too afraid to take it. Funny how fear does that – what’s the worst that could have happened to me? Was it the idea of relinquishing control to a capricious happiness that could abandon me at any time or, worse yet, surpass all of my expectations? I didn’t ask for signs to guide me back then, because all of my decisions were predetermined by regulations set by others. I suppose in some ways that made life easier. Vlad stretched me beyond my usual limitations, and though I bounced back into conformity, the boundaries had been loosened. My thinking had been challenged; my behavioral patterns had been knocked off course. And nothing bad had happened to me. In fact, I’d had a marvelous time.
A few years later, back in the U.S., I saw a documentary on PBS about the Chernobyl disaster that showed some of the footage taken by students and soldiers so soon after the meltdown. I remember no sound, only silence; the images haunting and ghostly. I understood the sacrifice those young camera men made, against their will, or at least without a choice, to share this terrible event with the world. I watched the shifting scenes and knew that some of them were Vlad’s; I tried to imagine him standing there; I was standing there. Half a world away, I was linked to the accident at Chernobyl, through his work, through my friendship with him, through our common bond as humans awed by the tragedy, reminded again to cherish the sacredness of human life.
Vlad is sacred; I am sacred; the Indian is sacred. We are all one. Vlad said to me once “Ty moya sudba” (You are my fate). We were outside on a beautiful bright spring day, and as he was usually so mischievous; something about the serious way he said it arrested my attention. The statement touched me the way truth does – definitely, irrevocably. Looking back with a myopic view, I thought I had failed, that even destiny hadn’t been able to stop my fear from sabotaging a wonderful relationship, that I had let the right one get away. I see now that the meaning is so much greater. There are no mistakes. I am his fate. He is my fate. He led me to my dreams, introduced me to the possibilities of film, demonstrated true passion and love for life. Maybe the point wasn’t to stay with him but rather to see the direction he indicated, to follow the light he shone my way. In the shadow of his image I saw reflected back to me my fear; I felt it, chafed within it, learned to push through despite it. He was a gift, a guide, as perhaps all the people are who touch us in life.
Now the Indian reminds me again, as he has before. My life circles in and out, back and forth and in on itself, sometimes contracting but ultimately expanding, always more flexible, stronger. I am at the edge of a great cliff, ready to take chances and jump into life. I don’t need to know the outcome. I trust. I love. I accept the love I’m given. Fear isn’t stopping me this time, but if it slows me down a little, that’s okay. Life isn’t only one chance, as I know, as I start over yet again. I’ve been relying on signs to lead me, not wanting to take full responsibility for my own decisions. The signs are always there, pointing me in the right direction, whether or not I can read them. What’s important, now, is to find the answers within myself.