I’ve actually had many drafts over the last few months, most of the in notes on my phone that, when I read them now, bring me back to those moments and remind me exactly how I felt – hurt, hopeful, loved, content, furious, strong, and mostly unsettled. None were complete, and often personal in a way that those snippets would not make sense to anyone else, probably.
I find that I hoard memories. Not in the obvious or demonstrative way – I don’t think I could even if I tried because I am not big on pictures. Even though I have thousands of them, again, on my phone (most of them are naked, which is really funny considering the first picture ever that I took that showed my nipples was for D, not even 2 years ago). I remember keeping postcards from my cousins when I was little, but my first treasure of memories was from the time I left Moscow.
I found out my parents were applying to immigrate the summer before grade 6. My best friend up to that point and I ended up having some sort of argument after I got fed up of being taken for granted and exploited (weird, right now I feel this way about K), and I spent most of the next year floating around the school, feeling disconnected but in no way lonely. Come to think of it, I never did feel lonely – I really don’t require people to like me or even accept me, and I can always find someone to alleviate my boredom, should that happen. Since I felt completely unattached and free, I was excited about the prospect of moving to a new country, and tried to imagine what it would be like, and if it was like anything I’ve seen in the movies. (For the record, it’s not.)
After grade 6, to move from the rapidly deteriorating political situation, we moved to Moscow. The summer was spent on the playground, watching Dirty Dancing and fantasizing about the boy next door. Once school started, I got a reality check – sometimes life happens in the way you don’t expect, and trying to control feelings is futile. In just a few days, I met people who became my whole world, if only for a little while, and were the friends I would measure others against, perhaps unfairly, for years to come. I had such good friends – best friends – who showed me what it’s like to truly open up, to trust and to accept. All throughout the following year, I tried to forget the fact that we were going to move, tried to enjoy my time and not let it slip that the life that I loved and the comfort of finding my people would change. A year later, I mentioned the inevitable move to a few of them, and the weight lifted, if only because now it was shared.
As a remnant of health scares rampant in the old USSR, we all got tested for various illnesses (when I was little, we had annual checks of the thyroid glands – thanks to the proximity to the Chernobyl debacle) – and right before new year we got the vaccine tests for tuberculosis. You know, the ones that they prick you with and then you can’t touch it or let it get wet for a week until they check what is the reaction? (Side note, my mind now permanently lives in the gutter, it is somewhat impressive.) Anyway, so my injection area was slightly irritated, so they sent me off to the hospital to get proper tests. For the record, no, I have never had tuberculosis, and went through a rigorous health check before we got the visa, so I did not bring any illnesses to this continent. You know, sometimes people wonder. The reason it became significant was because they said I wouldn’t be allowed back in school in January without a confirmation of clean health. And just a few days after the beginning of new year, we got the invitation for visa.
So I never went back to that school.
I never saw most of the people in my class, and haven’t said goodbye to most of them.
My best friends, though – leaving them was breaking my heart. Some of the guys stopped by the night before, including the blond cutie I had the biggest crush on (who had arguably the best legs I have ever seen on a man), the bad boy who was a dick to mostly everyone, but one who taught me about honesty and loyalty (who was so furious when he found out I was moving he actually yelled at me, for the first time ever). My girls, though, refused to come see me then. They decided they would see me off in the morning, and promised to see me in just a few hours.
In the morning, I was woken up at least an hour before I expected. Turned out, the weather was getting even worse, and we had to start moving earlier. I was getting into a panic – would I end up leaving without seeing them? The ride to the airport was a blur of tears and dark streets – I don’t remember anything except finally going through the checkpoints. I was hoping against all odds that maybe they would have made it for the second car, the one with some relatives who would come see us off and say final goodbyes, but it didn’t happen. We were leaving, and best plans, so sweet to think of the day before, were ruined.
I was going through the last passport check when I heard my name.
I don’t know how they did it. They were all sleeping at one girl’s place, and I guess they made it to my apartment, were told I was already gone, and somehow managed to wake up someone’s dad who drove them at 6am to the airport. Just to say goodbye to me. They also had some things for me – a set of pictures they took during the last few weeks at school, while I was already gone, a perfume they knew I wanted and an audio tape they recorded the night before, of all of them talking to me and wishing me the best and reminding me how much they loved me and what I meant to them. So, as much as I am terrible at accepting presents (I never really learned how to do that, and it always makes me uncomfortable), I shakily took those precious gifts and had to say goodbye to them. And then I left.
It was only in Frankfurt airport, on the layover, that I got to listen to the tape. I am pretty sure I was a terrible mess, with tear-stained face and probably snot all over me, frantically eating some chocolates (I know exactly what they were) and just listening, over and over again, to those amazing people who taught me everything I knew about friendship and love.
Those pictures and tape are still in a box I hold dear. The perfume is gone, but I remember it so well sometimes a familiar whiff reminds me of that precise moment they found me and of the subsequent 6 months in Vancouver, lonely and heartbroken and homesick – not for my school or country or familiar places, but for the people who meant the most to me. I hold other things in this box, too – an old compass that was given to my dad by his father, a baby pajama thing that used to be mine, some postcards and a tiny white and blue ceramic tiger. That’s all that is left from my time in Moscow.
Most of the time, I don’t think about them, or about the year and a half I lived there. But when I do… I feel like I can remember everything. Most likely, I am missing some pieces, and some moments have been changed, tinted with the romantic notions of lost connections. I know that we all changed – and while I do believe that, mostly, the major parts of what me “me” are there, they probably developed differently from my friends. We all grew up. I remember talking to one of them, really, the only one with whom I had some contact over the years and who came to visit me in this country, once I moved to Montreal. Her first question (we were both 18 at the time) was “are there good men to marry there?” and I was speechless for a moment. It shows how different our realities became, how differently we saw the world and how diverged our ambitions got. It’s ok, and I know that now we probably wouldn’t have the same understanding of each other and the world as we did back then. I would still like to see some of them, to witness how they grew up, who they are now – and get that flutter of memory. But it will probably not happen. I haven’t been back. What we had is gone, but it happened. It was real. I am who I am because of them, and it’s funny, but a detail from those years is still a presence in some of my passwords, and is a constant reminder of where I come from. I hold on to the memory of my friends, and I treasure it like the most precious gift it is. I don’t measure people up against the untainted memory of a 13 year old girl anymore, but it is still who I want to be – that person who is deserving of a pure friendship, and worthy of waking someone up and driving through the night for just a minute of a goodbye.