On the pretext of pursuing a profession, I decide to leave New York. But what I really want is some place to yearn for. To pine for place is how I live, and in New York I’m alarmingly at home. That other city, the first city, Moscow, has already vanished into a faded pencil marking, an exhale.
My parents and I watch the newscaster announce that a former KGB agent has been poisoned with radioactive polonium in London. He’s in the hospital, writhing in death throes. Putin, in Moscow, denies any involvement.
“Poisoning always comes in pairs.” My mother says this as if this is a common, ancient belief. “It is this you want to visit?”
My father, who had been mimicking Chekhov’s Irina for years—“To Moscow! To Moscow”—is silent.
The new Moscow, when we return, is a bejeweled ornament, exuding a tourist’s double uneasiness: wariness and joy.
Aciman, again: “It is the traffic between places, and not the places themselves, that eventually becomes the home, the spiritual home, the capital.”
Now I drive between Pittsburgh and New York, school years in Pittsburgh, summers in New York. Back and forth on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the back seat crammed with sets of two: sheets, plastic containers of marinated mushrooms. Today I drive in fog, Thanksgiving ends in sleet, the spring journey begins under the kind of blue you slurp. As soon as I arrive in one place, I can undertake longing for the other.
The linguist Yury Lotman teaches us that Russia operates on a binary model; it can only position itself in relation to its opposite. A country that is capable of rejecting its own past must be a country divided into two extremes. It is a country with no firm center, one that flips its own identity at will. It requires two choices for self-clarity, to decide what it is and what it’s not.
Vacationing in Vancouver, my then-boyfriend, now-husband and I drive to the outer fringes of the city for ice cream. We hear there’s a shop named La Casa Gelato that makes over 200 homemade flavors. My boyfriend, like me, adores ice cream above almost any other food.
The display case wraps around the store, filled with vats of alien flavors—lychee, durian, hazelnut pear. Inwardly, I panic before the options, but I want to impress my boyfriend, so I ask to taste the gorgonzola. It is tart and chunky and reminds me of cheese left too long on the counter.
I say, “I’ll have vanilla.”
My boyfriend is surprised; he had decided early on in our relationship that as an immigrant, I would prove to be the adventurous one, the risk-taker. My decision disappoints me as well, because when the cone of white is settled in my hand, I think of how far I have traveled for the privilege of choosing among all these flavors.