They’re the kind of people who actually prefer the predictable, convenient lives they left behind, and so for them, Moscow was a punishment, only a grossly overpaid punishment.
There is also a very unhumorous side to the word “exile.” To most Russians, few words conjure as much tragedy and cultural/historical pain. Most of the great figures of Russian literary and philosophical history were forced into exile, from Pushkin to Lenin to Solzhenitsyn. Even Limonov was tossed out in 1974. The entire aristocracy, what was left after the butchery and counterbutchery in the Civil War, was exiled. With Stalin, exile was socialized, taken to the masses. It didn’t matter how clever or rich or dangerous you were—all were welcome! Entire nations were exiled: the Crimean Tartars, the Ingush and Chechens, Volga Germans, Baltic peoples, Jews. . . . And here we were, a pissy, free, biweekly English-language newspaper, selling the national tragedy as a joke, with the kitsch e.e. cummings lower case “e,” and the uncool appropriation of the capital “X” from Generation X just to hammer the point home. We wanted to start off on the wrong foot with our readers. All of them.
The name “The exile” was part of a list of about ten or twenty suggestions emailed to me by Dr. John Dolan, from his dungeon at the University of Otago, on New Zealand’s South Island. He sent the list to me when the newspaper was just starting up, in January 1997. Whereas I loved my place of exile—Moscow—for Dr. Dolan, exile retained its classic, painful meaning. He always referred to the South Island as “Alcatraz.” He’s been cooking up failed plans to escape New Zealand ever since he landed.
I knew Dr. Dolan from when I was a student at Berkeley in the late Reagan years. We had a lot of ideas back then, big dreams about getting famous and destroying the “Beigeocracy” that we thought stifled and controlled American Letters. We were going to impale the “Beigeists”—another Dolan coinage—on the very pens they wrote on. We were sure we were going to prevail. Everything seemed possible then: world war, literary fame. . . . Anyway, something Really Big, with us at the center of it all. He was a local cult poet, whereas I was sort of a conscript, part of a small circle of reactionary intellectuals at Berkeley. We’d ridicule the boring lefties, our enemies. We’d drop all sorts of drugs and go to the underground shows: Scratch Acid, Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth, Big Black. It felt like something might happen, and soon.
Then something happened. As in, nothing happened. At all. And then I graduated.
The Bush years marked my decline, the Fall of my empire of dreams. When Bush and his golfing buddies got tossed out in ’92, I started thinking, hey, Bush and I have a lot in common, getting overrun by progress and all. Except in one small respect: Bush was a filthy-rich historical figure, whereas I was an unemployed, barely published, aging zero. I’d written screenplays that ended up in unmarked piles. I had an agent in Hollywood, but he insisted that I move down to L.A. if I wanted to succeed—something I didn’t have the stomach to do. My short stories were said to be too undisciplined and violent for a market that expects subtlety and epiphany. “Read Raymond Carver or Alice Munro,” they’d advise me. I could never get past page two of their cringing, careful stories.
My circle of reactionary friends did what all reactionaries do: they either enlisted in the corporate world, since to do otherwise would be hippie-ish; or they became epic losers. Dr. Dolan, who wrote his dissertation on de Sade, wound up in New Zealand, on the South Island, teaching English Composition to freshman med-students. One friend became a corporate lawyer; another, the smartest of our circle, who peaked too early, went on welfare, became a crack addict, and joined Pat Buchanan’s Crusade For America. He fell off the radar screen a few years ago. We think he’s dead.
I began to notice something during those years of sliding insignificance. Strangely enough, even though I lived in California, the yardstick by which all cultures in the world measure themselves—even though I was a citizen of Pericles’s Athens and Augustus’s Rome, my country was, paradoxically, becoming increasingly inaccessible to me. I felt more and more foreign as the months went by. Spending five years in Berkeley can give you a pretty skewed, useless understanding of America. When you get out, the rest of the country is a real shocker. Berkeley isn’t winning anything, never did: it’s just a tiny nature preserve, a showpiece of dissent, a summer camp, a Potemkin Village of harmless radicalism, a campus stacked with college DJ quippers. I took a belated trip to Europe, which included a two-week stay in Leningrad, just after the failed August coup in 1991. That fourteen-day, Homeric adventure on the streets of Leningrad really made an impression—I briefly fell into a world of prostitutes, pimps, petty thieves, and high embassy officials who had to fight with the OVIR police to extend my visa and allow me to leave the country. Several months after returning home, my slow-working mind began to process it all. I didn’t yet realize, consciously, that I belonged in Russia. I didn’t understand that I had the right to move there. So instead of staying in Leningrad, I returned to the Bay Area in late 1991, and, in one of those classic career moves that marked my pre-Russia life, I checked into a care home for old women.
The care home was also the residential home where my Czech émigré girlfriend and her mother lived. They’d turned the back wing of their house into a care home, and named it “The European Care Home.” It was about as close to Europe as I dared to move. I didn’t have a place to live when I returned from my trip to the Soviet Union, and I didn’t have the money to rent. Jobs in California were hard to come by in 1991. Also, I’d contracted an epic case of scabies sometime during my vacation, an infestation that would define the next nine months of my life.
I spent almost an entire year holed up in the European Care Home, in Foster City, a decaying 1970s suburb built on landfill on the peninsula south of San Francisco.
At this point, I’d like to take you on a little tour of suburban California. By reminding you of the bland hell that exists before your eyes on a daily basis, you will better understand why I defected to Russia.
Foster City was a scary place, even by suburban California standards. On the west side, closest to Highway 101 and San Mateo, Foster City had a cluster of ’80s-style 10-story iridescent-green glass skyscrapers. It looked like a brochure for a “new high-tech industrial park,” complete with watercolor-drawn humans in suits and beige skirts and sleek American midsize cars in the parking lots. It was the result of a failed attempt to remake Foster City from a commuter suburb to a high-tech center.
When I moved there in 1991, Foster City was neither high-tech mecca nor residential dreamland. You saw it when you drove past the half-abandoned silicon-chip mid-rises, and into the one-story, residential eastern half, closer to the bay. Every garage seemed to have a second-rate sports utility vehicle with “Ross Perot for President” bumper stickers plastered on the bumpers or on the smoked hatch windows. This was the “angry middle class,” and they didn’t look all that angry to me: just dull and stingy. In spite of the constant heat, you never actually saw people. And even when you did, they avoided looking at you. They’d check their mail or work on their cars while listening to classic rock. But they’d never look at you.
The European Care Home was located at the end of a culde-sac deep within a maze of lanes and streets. Ours was called Sand Hill Court. The care home was really just a suburban house, not too different from the seven suburban houses and condominiums I’d lived in from birth until defection to Berkeley. Only, everything was older and sun-aged, like the people inside. The European Care Home’s lawn had been overrun by crabgrass, with the occasional sprout of sour grass jutting out. The swimming pool in the care home’s backyard was unusable: brackish, leaf and bug-filled. The pool sweep was upside down and rusted, like a dead kelp monster.
We had two old patients living in the European Care Home. I lived in one of the five bedrooms with my girlfriend. Her mother lived in another, next to ours. Four patient beds lay empty.
The money earned from the two patients barely covered the care home’s mortgage payments. I was no help: in fact, I’d moved there in large part because I had no money. Meanwhile, my scabies infection only got worse and worse. It baffled the doctors. First I was told it was a simple rash, and prescribed Cortisone. That made it spread. So I was given stronger Cortisone. I’d squirt the white cream on my ass, but the relief was only temporary. As I later found out, there’s nothing scabies mites love more than Cortisone-treated skin. It makes the flesh softer, chewier. Applying Cortisone was like tilling the soil: all the mites had to do now was fuck, and they’d create one of the largest human scabies settlements on planet earth. And fuck they did. When I couldn’t stand the itching anymore, I took my ass to another doctor. He diagnosed me with scabies, so he gave me a tube of Elimite. I spent the next week in itch-agony. That Elimite was like napalm. I couldn’t tear my skin off. I was like that Vietnamese child from the war posters, crying and running naked down the rice paddy avenue, only I wasn’t in a rice paddy. I was in the European Care Home, on Sand Hill Court, and no weeping hippie was going to hold up an anti-arachnid protest placard of me scratching myself.
The world was caving in on all sides of us. The bank called my girlfriend’s mother every week, and soon, every day. The telephone’s long distance service was cut off. Once they even cut off our gas. Then one of the patients, Lydia, who looked like a dehydrated old hippopotamus, collapsed and couldn’t stand up. She shat all over her room. She must have weighed 250 pounds. Even I had to pitch in to help her up, although I wasn’t allowed to get too close to anyone, due to my scabies.
I might have felt more sympathy for Lydia, but my scabies infestation had entered a new, unprecedented stage—and so had my selfishness. They transformed into what are called “nodal” or “Norwegian” scabies. My mites were the Albert Speers of the arachnid world. They constructed about thirty or so bunkers on my ass: hardened, red nodules which rendered the Kwell lotion and Elimite lotion useless—mere defoliants, causing my ass-hairs to fall out. Each bunker-node, as I later learned, could house up to a thousand mites.
We needed a new patient, before Lydia croaked on us. Mrs. Klausova, my girlfriend’s mother, was willing take anything that still twitched, so long as it had deep pockets. She hit up some shady agency that locates potential care home patients. They reached for the bottom of the barrel and came up with two insane “clients.” No other Peninsula care home would consider these two. They should have had those electric-shock collars locked around their necks and kept in a basement under a trap door; you’d throw them a raw piece of meat every so often, and that’s it.
The minute they moved in, Lydia was tossed out. She was demoted to a nursing home in a neighboring Peninsula suburb, Millbrae, where she later died. I would have hugged her goodbye, but I didn’t want to give her my scabies. Living in that care home made me meaner than ever.
So now we had three patients: two new ones, and the old reliable veteran, Joanne. One of the crazy new patients suffered from some kind of advanced form of emphysema. She needed an oxygen tank in her room. There was a red plastic “No Smoking” sign pinned outside of her bedroom door, on orders from her social worker. She smoked anyway. When she talked, it sounded like she was gargling broken glass. She had a way of escaping the European Care Home with regularity. I couldn’t understand it. It wasn’t like she was Papillon or anything. You could give her a ten-minute head start from her bedroom to the front door, and you’d still be able to stick her midway down the hallway and put her on injured reserve for 4-6 months. But somehow, she’d slip out, only to be brought back by her social worker, who’d lecture us all.
The other patient, Doris, suffered from an extreme case of Panic Attack Syndrome. I’d never heard of Panic Attack until she moved in. She’d wake up almost every night in fear. Her attacks began with a long, drawn-out moan, like some Exorcist demon. That went on for the first hour or so. Then she’d call for my girlfriend’s mother. “Eva . . . Eva . . . Eva? Eva? . . . Eva! Eeee-Vaa!!!”
Mrs. Klausova handled it all pretty well at first. She’d been a nurse back in Czechoslovakia. She’d probably seen much worse out there. Her only problem was that she didn’t understand America too well. She couldn’t fathom the concept of “patients’ rights,” for example. As in, “Thou shalt not beat thine patients.”
I almost never left my bedroom. I put on about 30 pounds, and lost all my color. I’d read Russian novels, dream about that two-week vacation in Leningrad, about the street punks I’d hung out with during that two-week incursion, or the girl, Olga, who became my temporary girlfriend and with whom I’d traded love vows. Olga, the half-Estonian, petite redhead. We met at some metal-head’s party on Vasilyevsky Island. She asked me to dance, which was strange: his apartment was just one room of a communal flat. And the music was something like Slayer or Megadeth, blasted so loud that the speakers distorted. But I danced with her anyway. The next time we met there, Olga took me into the corner for sex. My friends were in the the same room; the “bedroom” was really just a corner of the room partitioned off by some cheap shower curtains. He and his friends blasted his television on the far side of the room while Olga and I fucked in his bed. I think I caught the scabies from her.
One thing I learned about Russians during that vacation was that they made every day count. They weren’t looking to relax in front of the television and watch ESPN and talk about their mutual funds and eat at ethnic restaurants. They were looking for action. It seemed as though there, in Leningrad, in 1991, things were possible. You were always on the street, running into someone who’d just had some problem with so-and-so; girls would bump into you, and you’d make plans to meet up later; your bandit friends would hassle you, then split without a word. It was so alien, and yet, I felt more at ease there than anywhere I’d ever been. The air was cold and wet in Leningrad. They didn’t oppress you with their pod-people smiles and affected self-confidence the way they did in California. In fact, they looked every bit as miserable as I’d felt inside for, oh, as long as I could remember. And yet, oddly, they were so much more alive than, say, the neighbors in our cul-de-sac on Sand Hill Court. In Foster City, you just never saw those people.
With the addition of the two new patients, the European Care Home looked solvent again. After about six months, my scabies infection began to recede. My dermatologist prescribed a tar ointment to apply to the node-bunkers on my ass. We’d dissolve their armor, then gas the nest.
We tried sedating Doris. Nothing worked: not lithium, not Valium, not Xanax, not Lorazepams. Every night, she’d panic.
Once, at about three A.M., Mrs. Klausova barged out into the hallway and slapped Doris in the face. And slapped her again. I remember hearing everything go quiet.
Then Doris, with a hurt tone, said, “You just hit me.”
“Yes I did!” Mrs. Klausova said. “Now, go back to your room!”
Doris quietly returned to her bedroom.
Two days later, a social worker arrived with a police officer. Then another social worker came. They evacuated all three patients and closed down the European Care Home. Mrs. Klausova was threatened with criminal prosecution. My girlfriend and her mother were a mess. Not since they escaped Communist Czechoslovakia, spending two days and nights sneaking through the northern Austrian forests, slipping into Germany, had they been so frightened. Not since the Czech interrogations that Mrs. Klausova had endured had authorities put her through so much hell. She didn’t know that in California, there was an equally evil, insidious Securitate: social workers. She threatened to commit suicide. So did my girlfriend.
The bank foreclosed the house and put it on the auction block. It sold for less than they’d bought it for three years earlier. They were ruined. We all were ruined.
The only good news was that I’d finally killed off the last of the scabies settlements on my ass, some nine months after they’d first colonized me. The flesh was pockmarked and scaly; the hairs brittle and dead. It looked like Verdun. Verdun in victory.