Beneath Metro Station Mayakovskaya: rusting pipes: the pressing weight of Tverskaya Street: Unimagineable Poverty: and Various Glittering Boutiques.
I’m in the metro car and as usual there’s all the jostling and elbows and two kids behind me making out through the heat and cakey make-up smell and body odor. An old man — Russian old, so he could be anywhere from 60 to 80 years old — is staring at me through his thick bottle glasses while licking his fat cock-sucker lips and his hair looks like it hasn’t seen a shower in many a Siberian winter.
And I could go on — the carriage is packed with characters like this — but I’m trying my best not to pay any attention to them.
The couple I’m trying to pay least attention to is the one directly to my left, standing in front of this EKONOM BANK ad that promises industrial-grey stacks of rubles in return for showing them your passport.It’s what I’m looking at to pretend like I’m not noticing them.
I’m upset with myself for noticing that they’re dark-skinned, and I’m even more upset that their being dark-skinned pricks me a little on the inside. I’m a Western Man, goddamn it.Maybe I’ve had too much vodka and Solzhenitsyn over the years.
But then I notice it’s something else about the couple that’s doing it to me. The pricks and tingles. It’s just that: they don’t ride the metro like Russians, or like the smug asshole foreigners like me. They jostle around, they stutter-step when the train stops, they seem nervous when it stops.
That’s it, I think, and settle back into myself: they’re riding the metro like foreigners. And there’s a strict way you have to ride the metro in Moscow and even I had to learn and that’s what makes them stick out and makes me uneasy. That must be it, that must be it.
They look like Azeris.
And then I see: the woman has a round belly. And the man is protecting it, he has his arms straight out, boxing it off.
Bomb, I think.
They’re looking deep into each other’s eyes, waiting for a signal. He has his arms out to make sure no one brushes up against the explosives and sets them off or calls for help. She has her fingers curled around the detonation string.
But no, I sharply reprimand myself, that’s ridiculous. The woman is pregnant. The husband is protecting his child from the crowd. He’s probably embarrassed he can’t afford a car, and ashamed to put his unborn child at such risk and that’s why he looks up a little alarmed every twenty seconds or so. The string is just a part of her blouse.
But still my heart is beating strong.
I lapse back into my thoughts, mostly loose ties dealing with my money problems. I add what I’m due next week, subtract what I owe this week, and I get a vaguely positive number. So I do it again. And again.
This is a good distraction. So is remembering the girl that brought me to this city in the first place. But no: now my stomach hurts a little more. And my eyes are back on the couple.
The Azeris are fidgeting a little, and we’re coming to a stop — almost under the Kremlin. They haven’t spoken a word. I feel something jounce from my groin to the tops of my feet to my teeth.
If they were to rip this place apart, now would be the time to do it. And that’s what makes me breathe a little easier: we’re still here.
The train starts to move again.
The old man is still staring at me, and a teenage girl laughs behind me saucily, “Oh, Vlad… Oh, Vlad…”
My eyes dart back to the stacks of rubles on the bank poster to the woman’s pregnant belly and back to the rubles and up imagining the lines of red brick and the fairy-tale churches sparkling through the heavy dusk…
“You are such a whore, Lyudmila,” the man says to his wife, in impeccable Muscovite Russian.
He reaches for the string and pulls it. I have only an instant to anticipate the impending explosion — that will rip through the rocks and the eyes and clear all of my blood into the old man, the posters, the crowd. I think of my own eyes because I am watching Lyudmila’s, and she looks surprised.
And then the big gasp. The fire will come. It will howl down the tunnels and burn up the ground — bring down the rows of glitzy boutiques and the bodies of frozen beggars, through the howling puking walls.
Joshua S Walker is a Dublin-based writer currently working on a PhD on 19th-century Russian literature. He recently published a collection of historical fiction, Anna Marie and Other Tales of the Germans in the USSR, with the AHSGR Historical Society.