By Michael Stein
I was looking for peace and quiet, a refuge from the Petersburg streets full of slow Russian hurry, skid marks and broken glass; full of flustered, dehydrated tourists with fingers pressed over wallets in a perpetual state of alert, of pickpockets magically aiming to slip beneath those guarding hands, of police roadblocks aimed at catching potential terrorists from the former Soviet republics, of young teenage girls on horseback offering tourists rides and leaving hefty piles of manure on the sidewalks with glamorous unconcern, of Kazakhs in mirrored shades and visiting Muscovites with gold jewelry glistening in the sun.
It was the glistening I noticed that day, and not only in the rings, necklaces, earrings and sets of teeth, but emanating from the church spires in reach of the slanting sunlight and the hubcaps of luxury cars. And then I saw something gold, shimmering and vaguely familiar through a café window on the other side of the Nevsky Prospect.
I was halfway across the street, with one of the city’s multitude of gypsy cabs bearing down on me, when I realized that the guiding star leading me to productivity was actually the platinum blond hair of one of the fellow wannabe writers at the workshop I was attending here; Suzie, a former cheerleader who had traded in her pom-poms for a pen.
“Hey, come join us,” she said when I approached the empty seat at their table for four. “Now we can get an objective opinion.”
As usual, Suzie was with Diane. The roommates went everywhere together and had formed in the space of a few days the kind of ambivalence toward one another it usually takes years of a relationship, if not actual marriage, to create.
“You won’t believe what she said about me!” Suzie cried out.
“Oh, it’s no big deal… just that she would never write, which is true,” Diane said.
This seemed a pretty harsh statement to make of an aspiring author, but then I realized they were talking about writing letters to each other after the workshop was over, Diane being one of those people who hadn’t hung out with pretty, popular cheerleaders in high school and so was understandably skeptical that her newest friendship would stand the test of time.
Following the rules of cultural interaction I was prepared to nod a quick, indifferent hello at the Ivan, Dmitri or Sergei slouched in the seat across from my two fellow workshop attendees, and to receive his no less indifferent nod in return. This was how it worked. I would immediately consign him to the list of local guys hoping to pick up an American cheerleader, or in this case, ex-cheerleader, just as he would peg me for a guy aiming to have a potentially wordless, passionate encounter with a mystery-laden Russian beauty.
For once though I saw beyond type, looking past his wraparound shades and obvious self-involvement to see the actual person behind the stereotype.
He had to lift his sunglasses up to be able to recognize me.
“Ah, Adam’s friend… correct?”
“But what are you doing here? I thought your fate was in New York.”
“Fate… yes, who knows what strange and wondrous paths it may lead us on.”
He ended this with an unmistakable stare into Suzie’s eyes, although like a movie camera he followed it with a slow pan to take in Diane as well. Evidently, she was his backup plan.
“Fate?!” Suzie said. “Wow, that’s deep stuff Vass.”
“Yes, deep… the Russian soul is unfathomably deep… correct?”
I nodded. What else was I supposed to do?
I never got around to offering my opinion on Diane and Suzie’s hypothetical future correspondence. Vassily didn’t seem too concerned either, carelessly fingering a piece of green candy he had pulled out of his shirt pocket before tossing it in his mouth.
“Hey, can I have one?” Suzie asked.
“Uh, no sorry.”
The wax wrapper was still lying on the table – green and white-striped without any logos or words, like a cartoon prison uniform made of paper.
“No,” Vassily said with a wave at his pocket.
“Then why can’t we have some candy too?”
“It’s not candy,” Vassily answered.
Diane picked up the wrapper and scrutinized it through her wire-rimmed glasses.
“Not candy?” she said incredulously, “Then what is it? A cough drop?”
Vassily shook his head and said a word in Russian that none of us understood.
“It’s something Russians take too much of and gives us some of our worst… how do you say… characteristics.”
“Creep-to-what did you call it?” Suzie asked.
“Wait, you mean kryptonite?” I asked.
“You know it?” Vassily asked, surprised.
“But kryptonite is American,” Suzie said.
“No it’s not,” I pointed out. “It’s from the former planet Krypton.”
“In the comic or movie, whatever, but the idea is home-grown,” Diane corrected me.
“I beg to differ,” Vassily said, the apparent source of our disagreement still swishing around his mouth. “Kryptonite is not an idea, and it is most definitely Russian.”
He pulled out another piece. Its green color was more artificial than the most artificial dye I had ever seen, more green than the green of absinthe, and was shimmering in the sunlight like a radioactive emerald.
Vassily led us to a riverside bar where we drank cold beer and watched the boats criss-crossing from bridge to bridge. Brides and grooms would parade by every few minutes, take photos, propose toasts and make room for the next wedding party, while tourists were following their maps to destinations beyond our concern.
“Vassily, you have to be putting us on about this Russian kryptonite,” Diane said, her speech beginning to slur a little after her fourth or fifth beer.
Vassily remained stone-faced, even a little perplexed.
“Putting you on what?”
“I mean that you’re joking. I know we’re naïve Americans and blah blah, but c’mon – kryptonite is from Superman.”
“You know!” Suzie interjected. “Up, up and away, faster than a speeding bullet – the superhero! With superpowers.”
“Superman, you say?” Vassily mumbled, musing over the name which we all assumed he must have heard of. “And you say he has special powers… you mean of thinking?”
“No Vass, he can leap over a building in a single bound and stuff like that. Get it?” Suzie said.
“It’s a jump… he can fly.”
“Ah, so no, I can’t do that.”
It was strange, but as we went on to define Superman’s powers a look of annoyance began to flash in the Russian’s black eyes.
“Yes, I see… well, this is another typical American innovation. You take an invention, an idea from another country and idealize it completely in a ridiculous way.”
He was sincerely angry about this. Even his planned seduction seemed to have faded from his mind.
“I think you’ve lost us here Vassily,” I said in as conciliatory a tone as I could muster. “Superman is about as American as you can get.”
At this point he was just trying to restrain himself.
“I will explain it… what you call a superman…”
“Not a superman,” Diane interrupted. “There’s only one. It’s his name – Superman.”
“Only one!” Vassily gasped. “I live in your country and still am amazed constantly. Only one! Well, then I must inform you that your Superman too is not at all of American origin. He is European, actually Russian.”
“But he also came from the planet Krypton,” Diane said.
“From Krypton? And that’s another planet? But of course. For you people Russia is another planet.”
I didn’t bother mentioning the fact that Krypton was destroyed. Diane kept silent too.
“Everything must be simplified and glamorized with you people. Why? I don’t know. You’re not stupid, not lazy. I just can’t figure it out. You even had to shorten the name. In Russia, he… and I say he in the most general way because there are many of these supermen… Ha ha, only one! I cannot imagine this… he cannot fly or lift trains, or if he can he has never tried so he doesn’t know. He hasn’t tried a very great many things. This is the heart of his dilemma.
You are writers though, so maybe you know something of our literature. In the 19th Century a character arose in Russian novels called the superfluous man. He was a new type of man – filled with bold ideas yet paralyzed by doubt, not able to take part in the world around him…”
Suzie was trying to tilt her metal chair back so that it would balance on a single leg. It wasn’t clear that she was even listening.
“Well, that doesn’t sound like much of a superhero,” she giggled.
“I still think you’re messing with us,” Diane said, becoming somber and quiet as her roommate began an irreversible plunge into tipsiness.
“Now, the authorities … I mean, literary critics and so on, explained these figures from the pages of Turgenev, Goncharov and Dostoevsky as a phenomenon of the times – a loss of the values or the result of social, and later capitalist, oppression. But the ugly truth was they were the result of this.”
Vassily pulled another piece of kryptonite from his pocket, held it up and with one hand deftly slipped it out of its wrapper and popped it in his mouth.
“Hey careful, Vasya,” I said jokingly, “Can’t you overdose on that stuff?”
“No, not really. I’m used to it. Maybe I will just become a little gloomy and self-absorbed.”
The sun had dipped out of sight somewhere and the brides and grooms were replaced with a nighttime crowd too young to get married.
And it came to pass just as Vassily had predicted. The self-confident womanizer I had met in New York had become a shell of his former self over the course of a few hours. Suzie even began leaning over to him and blowing seductively in his ear, but it was as if he mistook her breath for a chill wind coming over the river and tucked his arms in his jacket as if he were cold.
Eventually the three of us left him there. I said I had to go back to my room and write, but I don’t think lies and excuses were even necessary. Vassily mumbled a goodbye and as we walked away I took a look back and saw him sitting in the same position, hunched over, staring out at the river or at the vast expanse of nothingness eating away at his soul.
She had mentioned wanting to buy a bag to bring home and was surprised at Vassily’s reaction.
“No, you must not!” he had said. “It is very strictly illegal to transport across the borders. For foreigners it’s not a good idea to have it at all. Besides, it is illegal in your country too, believe me I know.”
Suzie looked in her backpack and saw a little space where she could slip a small bag. Not that she really believed she needed to smuggle the green candies, but the truth was it was the last thing she could fit inside and still be able to zip it closed.
She was on her way to buy a bag of the stuff when it occurred to her she didn’t know what kind of store she should look for it in – a candy store? A pharmacy? A head shop? Or were there street dealers who whispered “kryptonite” from darkened doorways to ghostly figures of doubt-ridden addicts?
She opted for a cluttered market that seemed to have everything from CDs to alcohol to cleaning supplies and imitation Circassian daggers.
“Zdravstvuyte,” she said to the uncomprehending Armenian behind the counter. “I would like some kryptonite, please.”
An utterly blank stare.
“Creep-to-nite,” she tried in a vaguely more Russian pronunciation.
Still nothing. Yet Suzie wasn’t the type to give up easily and wasn’t willing to acknowledge that she had been the victim of a practical joke.
“You know Superman… up, up and away.”
She raised her arms in the air to simulate flight. The sales clerk’s stare was no longer blank. He was scared. Just then, Suzie thought she spotted green and white stripes high up on the shelves between an assortment of incense and refillable lighters decorated with skulls and crossbones.
“That’s it… up there,” she pointed earnestly.
For a moment the man thought she had changed her direction in mid-air and was now going to fly into the shelves. Then he saw what she was pointing at. Doubt seemed to cross his face. Then again, maybe he just didn’t want to climb up a ladder that high for such a questionable request. Suzie wasn’t paying attention to him though. She was too ecstatic.
She flew into JFK and was planning to spend a few days in New York clubbing and recovering before heading home to see her parents. She would wait to break out the Vodka until she got back to Michigan, but figured she could offer her friends in the city a few pieces of the green candy to see if it really did anything. Maybe she would even try some herself. After being in Russia and traveling in Europe all summer Suzie had developed a taste for novelty, so why not give self-doubt a little try.
It was a gray sky welcoming her home but she was impatient to get into the city as soon as she could. She had already resolved on springing for a cab rather than the endless subway ride when she saw her backpack coming towards her on the conveyor belt.
“Freeze right there! Put your hands on the back of your head …”
A third hand was added to the two behind her head and pushed her face down on the floor.
“Anything you say can be held against you in a court of …”
“But what the …?”
She could only see their feet and the paws of police dogs scurrying around. The floor was filthy.
“Let’s clear the area people!”
“What about our bags?”
A dog started barking wildly.
“That’s gotta be it. Step back. What are you doing?”
An airport security guard had come up to the conveyor belt and pulled the bag off and dragged it on the floor. He couldn’t stand how these city cops came in and acted like the bomb squad when it was only a college kid with some dope in her backpack. He couldn’t stand a lot of things about this job – seeing his co-workers turn a blind eye to baggage handlers slipping electric razors and wrapped parcels out of people’s suitcases with these greedy wolfish smiles on their faces, the same guys who moaned about being exploited by the “Man.” And was he any better? Mister paragon of virtue who would leave his wife and kids without a second thought if he could think of anywhere to go. His eyes remained fixed on the conveyor belt making its slow, grinding circle full of untouched bags now that the area had been cleared. What was even the point? He didn’t even care when he felt the grip of that arrogant cop dragging him away from the backpack, telling him to get away from the bag, because all he wanted to do now was get away.
Michael Stein is a writer and journalist in the Czech Republic and runs a blog on Central European writing called literalab. He is an editor at B O D Y and a regular contributor to journals such as Absinthe: New European Writing, The Cerise Press and Berlin’s Readux, has had a book review in Asymptote and published short stories in publications such as Drunken Boat, McSweeney’s, The Medulla Review and Cafe Irreal, among other magazines.