LENINGRAD, USSR. 10 MARCH 1985
Part of me was still in Helsinki (or “CamillaLand” as I called it now), and even the rickety Aeroflot flight to Leningrad and my Russian Customs scare didn’t cloud my floating. We arrived at our foreigners-only hotel, The Pribaltiskaya, a fashion-forward troupe of Patagonia and North Face jackets, a bit before 4pm Russian Standard Time.
“All IDs are checked in the lobby, at the dining tables and on every floor,” Mrs. X had forewarned me in Training Session #2. “But not for age or name; just for nationality. Remain dopey like they expect a sex-starved American karate kid to be.”
Zubes & I dropped our bags in Room 534 and as he flopped onto the windowside bed, he swiped my carry-on from the floor between the beds and began to rifle through it. Everything for my drop was secured to my body, but this unnerved me a bit. Before I could intercede Zubes unzipped my bag’s outside pocket and grabbed my Walkman FM-1. He unplugged my headphones and jacked his own into it.
“I want to hear Camilla’s mix tape, Loverboy,” he needled.
“Go for it,” I said as he hit play.
He clipped my little tape deck to his belt, rose from the bed and began to unpack. I told him I needed to find a Coke. He didn’t hear me through his critical listening, but made no protests as he watched me head to the door. His working-for-the-weekend mind was on Annika. The door auto-closed behind me.
I slipped through the lobby and walked a couple round-trip blocks from the hotel to get my immediate bearings in the Leningrad twilight. My friends were gathered in the lobby when I got back and we rousted in the hotel bar for a while. Later that night, I lied awake in my room.
Zubes was crashed in the bed by the window, victim of our young body boozing. I took the opportunity to do a bug check.
“Look at the lamps first,” Mrs X had said during Training Session #7, “Make note of which ones turn on and which ones don’t. Take each lampshade off and look for empty bulb sockets. Check if the bulbs look fresh. Make note of any burnt out bulbs. Look inside the bases. If a base is covered in felt, check how the felt’s attached. Feel if it’s a false bottom.”
“False bottoms,” I said with a scatalogic smirk.
“Shut up for a minute,” Mrs. X chided. “There are listening devices everywhere in every foreign hotel. Most of them are not in commission, but even those that aren’t probably could be activated again with the flip of a switch. Some of them are wired into the lamps. Often the bulb is burnt out in lamps that the regular staff aren’t allowed to touch, if you get my drift.”
“But it could still just be a lamp with a burned out bulb, right?”
“Sure. But why take your chances?”
Every lamp in Room 534 worked; there were no empty bulb sockets and no false felt bottoms. Relieved (though somewhat disappointed), I got into bed, leaned back on my pillow, and put Camilla’s mixtape into my Walkman. Nik Kershaw began to flow. I took out my notebook and began to collect some thoughts.
This journal is brought to you by heroin smugglers in Turkey and the letter I, I began. The story of your average teenage cold-war secret agent traveling with a Catholic school to Russia on a Spring Break field trip…
…Bright blue coat. Cacophany of color – down, gore-tex, nylon, denim. Workboots. Streets not well lit. Double indemnity city.
Bee landed on my coat. Dead of winter, off-season bee. Yellow and black against citygray. The kind of shit you don’t forget. I let it ride on me as I walked slowly through the heavy revolving door into the hotel lobby, where the bee ambled into the Pribaltiskaya’s bar running the length of the lobby’s waterfront windows. The neon yellowjacket fit right in as it flew right by Zubes & Murph and a host of other students all of whom came to the same sudden realization this was outer space compared to suburban New Jersey. No one noticed the bee, though. The bar was electric, sending off a sequenced rhythm of lights, music and glass clinking.
Could I really? A 16-year old can get served in a bar?
With our chaperon priests ensconced upstairs in prayer, Zubes, Murph and I locked a quick glance and had the same thought. We motioned the gaggle to follow us and slinked through the lobby, slipping behind a large wooden lattice that separated the drinkers from the check-in area. We sidled up to a dark wooden bar, flanked by mirrors, in front of a large picture window, through which was visible the flat vast plain of ice that began in Russia and ended on Finnish shores.
Camilla, do you hear me? I thought. I’m behind the line. I’m ordering drinks for us.
As Spandau Ballet’s True faded out, Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Relax spilled out of the bar’s cassette-based stereo. I looked around at the spinning lights and the bass pulse joined me to the situation. An eerie familiarity, I thought.
I sorted out a few Americans other than our reprobates.
Man, we are fucking obvious.
I heard some Queen’s English, some French and German and a few throaty languages I didn’t understand at all filter through the drunken din. But no Russian. Foreign-only, baby, I thought.
“Any Russians in your hotel that aren’t staff will be speaking another language,” Mrs. X had told me during Training Session #2, “Be leery of people who attempt to engage you in English. They are usually fishing.”
Crap, I thought as I looked around the bar, the bad guy is going to look and sound just like me, not Bullwinkle Boris or Natasha.
Relax, don’t do it / when you want to go to it
Relax, don’t do it / when you wanna come
Crack to my shoulder, courtesy of Murph. As he recoiled his fist, he said, “Dave, get a load of Choppers!”
Sam Soulchaupe, aka Choppers, a Senior on his way to Georgetown and probably a career as a successful suburban District Attorney in the metro DC area, was on the other end of the bar, locking lips with a woman twice his size. They disengaged and she stroked through his curly dirt head with her fat fingers. I wretched.
“Is she…” Zubes queried, “missing a tooth?”
“At least two maybe? Wait… No,” I studied. “That’s her tongue.”
Choppers took notice of our gawk and shot back.
“Get your own, homos!” And then, arm in arm, the 2 retreated out of the bar in the direction of the lobby elevators.
I turned to find the bartender looking down on me. “So what do you drink, America?”
“Stoli,” I said, attempting to invoke the Falcon.
Murph, who had been watching me, nodded and gestured at himself in a Woody Allen-y way.
“Hey!” I called after the bartender, who turned. “Three.” He returned me a nod. Murph smiled and nodded like he was in a dream.
An hour and two drinx later, Choppers came back and filled us in on his sexcapade, which had left him with a pronounced 3-inch hickey on his neck. She turned out to be a Bulgarian exchange student in Leningrad for a semester to study historical sewing.
“Ooh, college suckage,” Murph said, cracking Choppers hard in the hickey. He then surprise slouched onto Choppers and opened his mouth wide over Choppers’ hickey, as if he was going to suck on it.
“Watch out! It’s the Bulgarian Hickey Monster!” Zubes screamslurred.
“Get the fuck off me!” Choppers upped his volume and shouldered Murph off of him. Then he got resolute. “Fuck yourselves, all of you. Call me when you score.” He turned to order a drink. The rest of us turned to each other and laughed.
I feel safe tonight as I write. I feel okay. Everything’s going to work out. mission secure…
Okay, I thought as the jetlag juice began to work a sleepy-eyed stillness through me. Not a bad start. ‘Mission secure.’ I like that as my journal sign off for this.
I got up, and grabbed my walkman, which Zubes had put on the nightstand separating our beds, on top of a slice of hotel stationery. This mix means she loves you, dude, he had written.
I folded his note, slipped it into my carry-on, flipped off the main room light and felt my way back to the bed through my eyes’ darkness adjustment. The hotel window was just shades of black as the Gulf of Finland’s water and Russian skies exchanged states. I fast-forwarded a random distance into Camilla’s mixtape and the walkman’s tape head settled into The Chills’ Pink Frost.
“The Chills are from New Zealand,” Camilla had whispered to me as we shared headphones in the freezing cold outside that Helsinki coffee shop. “I bet you’ve never been to Christchurch, you American boy.”
“I’ve been to Christ’s church, but not Christchurch,” I tried to be funny.
She went ahead and kissed me anyway.
next up: me and zubes make a really dumb move