Meeting the Enemy

"Meeting the Enemy" recently tied for first in the memoir division of the Central Oregon Writers Guild annual Literary Harvest competition. I originally wrote it for myself, as a kind of kick-start to the book I'm working on, but when it fit the contest criteria—with a little editing—I sent it in. A nice surprise to see it win. Enjoy!


I remember the crunch of footsteps on a pebbled path; five people moving across an ill-kempt garden, far more interested in exchanging views than in viewing the vast mansion and its once elegant park. I remember the heat, the weight of heavy, smog-filled air, a feeling of pressure and unease.

I remember that we didn’t know these people, this couple, at all. (We are three Americans, they are two Soviet Russians—the other, the enemy.) We met only today, a very hot day, a 1977 day, Irina finding us at the Moscow PTT, two adults and one eleven-year-old searching for an unknown woman in a crowd of unknowns. We met only today, but we trusted her enough to get into a cab and drive a long, long way through baking, dreary streets; past endless blocks of gray, shoddily built high-rises until finally, finally, the car stopped and we got out into the overheated air and followed her into a tiny, dirty elevator and then into a small, clean and modern apartment with views of other small apartments in other identical buildings.

And waiting there was Isidor, her gray-haired husband; polite, gentlemanly, intense. They overwhelm us with hospitality, this pair, genuinely concerned for our comfort. It was so hot; they were sorry about the heat. Would we like to take showers? A nap?  No? Then perhaps a cool drink, some tea? A lemonade? A vodka? We laugh at that, and accept iced tea. 

And Isidor reaches over and unplugs the phone. “Maybe listeners,” he says.

Isidor is a translator for a national magazine and is anxious to discuss American idioms he doesn’t understand, though his English is excellent. He shows us a censored copy of Newsweek with empty squares where articles once hung, articles he is not allowed to know about but sometimes guesses from the context. He is disgusted with the censors but he values his job and his curiosity is aroused. What luck, he must think, right here in my apartment I have live Americans who can explain these strange sentences.

“What does this mean?” he asks: “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” 

Irina, in the meantime, has arranged an elegant lunch: salads, cheeses, fresh fruit, even caviar.  We express surprise at the variety, for we have had difficulty finding good food in the markets, and she explains that because she is a doctor and has access to many people she can trade her services for food and small luxuries. She shows us a red notebook filled with names she can call on for wanted items. The caviar came from one, the tomatoes from another.

It is all illegal of course, this underground economy, but it is as natural to the Soviets as breathing. 

As we sit down to lunch Isidor and Irina are full of questions. About Irina’s daughter, of course, whom I met in Oregon while studying Russian; about America itself, can we please explain the contradictions Isidor sees in his reading? Can we help them understand what is real and what is not? Can we clarify the truth of what they are hearing from others, or what he has read in his half-mutilated publications? And what about this neutron bomb?

We try to supply answers, but we are almost as ignorant of current news as they. For months we’ve been traveling the roads of Europe in a VW camper, with no radio and no skills for the reading of foreign newspapers. But it doesn’t matter, really, they want to know everything. They don’t care if we talk about our home in Oregon, life in the U.S., or what we’ve seen on the road. They would, if they could, suck the thoughts right out of our heads they are so hungry for news and truth.

And so we decide to go out, to a barren park they know where it is safer to talk, where potential listeners are more obvious. The oppressiveness of that potential remains, however—at least for me.

 So here we are, friends strolling the gravel paths, wandering the grounds of a pre-revolutionary mansion on a hot and smoggy day. That we are friends is not doubted. That ineffable understanding—empathy, attachment, whatever it is that defines friendship, has rooted. The other, the unknown, the enemy, is routed.

It is our turn to ask questions now, about their culture, about how things work, about the dissident movement and the underground writings known as samizdat. And then the practical questions like finding vegetable markets and how to act when we’re approached by the KGB, for we were, we will be. They suggest places for us to visit in Moscow and I ask about getting to Zagorsk, a nearby city full of beautiful Russian architecture that we are not permitted to visit.

And then I remember this, that Isidor, walking ahead of us suddenly turned back and said, “But tell us about this wonderful trip of yours, how is it possible that you can do this, that you can come here even.” And I remember that we halted on the path and I said, “Oh well, you know, it was just an idea. We started thinking about it, and planning and—well, here we are!”

“Oh,” he said. And after a pause, “You know, we too can have thousands of ideas. But they all die within us.”

And because we knew it was true there was little more to say. Our two worlds had briefly merged, but this was a divide we were powerless to transcend. The five of us slowly retreated up the pebbled path while the heat and smog pressed down and uneasiness returned. We exited the grounds of the old mansion and walked together, making small talk, to a nearby metro station. Isidor and Irina helped us find the right train, then we hugged them both in turn and climbed aboard. And they stood on the platform and waved goodbye as the train began to move.

We never saw or heard from them again.