Excerpt from FINDING KATARINA M.
Kolyma region, northeastern Siberia, 1951
She had seen prisoners commit suicide by running through the leafy birch forest, drawing the expected bullet in the back. Taking any sharp thing imaginable—on one occasion, the jagged edge of a broken metal bucket—to gnaw at their wrists until a vein opened. Ever since the death of her infant son, she’d imagined different ways to kill herself and mentally rehearsed the steps of each until she was sure she would succeed. But when she finally threw the end of the thick rope she’d made from torn strips of fabric over a beam in the deserted barracks, her resolve drained away.
How stupidly dramatic she was being. As if choosing the time of her death proved some kind of mastery. As if a self-inflicted end was somehow better than the starvation, disease, or violence that would find her in due course. Her suicidal plan was nothing more than a hapless tinkering with the trivial matters of when and how death would make its inevitable claim. There was no solace in it, only the humiliation of having turned against herself.
Kicking the rope under her cot, she took stock of herself. Her body was a pitiful relic of what it had been, but it was still capable of movement, and her mind was still capable of thought. She counted two additional advantages: evil did not shock her anymore, and mortal fear was gone.
Vera, the infant daughter pulled from her arms on the day she was arrested, would be three years old now. For that child’s sake, she would use what was left of her strength to attempt escape. Her chances of success were slight. Even if she managed to slip away from the camp, winter was closing in, and the distances were vast. But she would be dreaming of a warm reunion with each homeward step, and when death found her, it would be no more than what was bound to happen anyway.
“There’s one more person to see you,” my assistant said, peeking her head into my office. Her straw purse hung from her shoulder—a sure sign that she intended to head home after we spoke, which she had every right to do since it was an hour after closing time. We’d had a busy afternoon, with patients backed up in the waiting room, most of them needing routine care, one person, unfortunately, very sick.
“Not another emergency, I hope.” I had a work function that evening and had to get home in time to change and take a cab downtown. Also, I was tired.
“Doesn’t look that way. But how would I know? She won’t tell me her name or what she wants, only that she needs to see you. She’s been waiting all afternoon.”
I groaned, fearing a lengthy consultation. But I was also intrigued. People who wait for hours to get what they want tend to impress me.
“All right. Send her in.”
The young woman who appeared in my doorway was tiny, no more than a hundred pounds, early twenties maybe, with Eurasian features and glossy black hair that fell freely across bare arms. Her yellow cotton dress was wrinkled and quite plain compared to what the generally well-off patients at the medical center usually wore, and she teetered on the kind of high platform sandals that were in vogue that summer and that were probably keeping the orthopedists busy. One of her toes was wrapped in a grubby band-aid.
She was fidgety, could barely meet my eyes. My first thought was that she must be a shy former patient with symptoms that embarrassed her, yet she didn’t look familiar.
“Are you Mrs. Natalie March?” she asked softly, managing even in that short sentence to insert several guttural consonants where they didn’t belong. A Russian accent.
“I am,” I said in a light tone, hoping it would help her relax.
She blushed. “I am sorry for problem. I am sorry English language is not good.”
“We could speak Russian if you prefer.” I’d grown up speaking Russian with my immigrant parents. My fluency made me a popular physician among Russians living in the Washington, D.C. area—business people, embassy workers, diplomats and their families. But none called me missus.
When I asked if she was a patient with the practice, she said no, that her business was personal. Her Russian was spiced with a subtle regional accent I couldn’t place.
“Have a seat,” I said, indicating two leather chairs facing my desk.
She perched gingerly on the one closest to the door and began twisting a small silver ring on her finger. Her hands were well-made, with tapered fingers and defined muscles. In fact, every part of her anatomy was beautifully formed and proportioned: slender ankles, toned calves, sleek arms, elegant neck. Her body gave the impression of having been sculpted by a master craftsman with a keen appreciation for the beauty of the human form.
“My name is Saldana Tarasova,” she said, so quietly I could barely hear her.
I remained silent, knowing there was more to come.
After a long pause, her dark eyes, flourishes of eyeliner accentuating their rising slant, flicked up to meet mine. “I am cousin.”
I offered what was probably a rather stiff smile. To the best of my knowledge, I didn’t have any cousins, and now that I’d had a closer look at her, was certain we hadn’t met before. The thought flashed through my mind that she might have a psychiatric disorder, in which case I’d be there all night finding the proper care for her. Or that she might be dangerous, despite her innocent appearance. I pictured the red security buzzer, now standard equipment for medical personnel at the center, tucked under the lip of my desk.
“Cousin?” I repeated. “I don’t think so. You must be looking for someone else.”
She dropped her gaze abruptly, blushing so deeply that her tan cheeks shaded to burnished copper. The nervous ring twisting resumed, even more torturous this time. She appeared to be fighting back tears.
I saw that my response had upset her and tried again. “I’m sorry…Saldana, is it?”
She nodded briefly and miserably, her eyes still downcast.
“You’ve caught me by surprise. I don’t believe I have any cousins. Maybe you could say a little more.”
“My grandmother, Katarina Melnikova, is also your grandmother.”
“Ah.” The words were like a gentle slap across my face. Melnikova was indeed the name of my maternal grandmother who’d been sent to the gulag with her young husband in 1949.
“Yes, I know that name,” I said, “though I haven’t heard it spoken in a long time.”
Not since I was fourteen years old, when my mother, in an awkwardly formal ceremony, showed me an old photo album she’d been keeping hidden somewhere, possibly in shame, or in the Russian penchant for secrecy that I, an American teenager, couldn’t hope to understand. She had turned the old pages slowly, finally stopping at a black-and-white photo of a young couple with easy, confident smiles standing with arms linked on a city street. The woman was dressed in a wool travelling suit with a belted waist and a jaunty felt hat that perched on the back of her head; the man wore a tweed overcoat, unbuttoned, over a white shirt and thin dark tie. There was blurry Cyrillic lettering on one of the shop signs behind them.
“Those are your grandparents,” she said.
I stared at the photo in bewildered surprise. I’d never seen a picture of them before and had been told almost nothing about them, only that they were Ukrainians who died when my mother was an infant. I’d always assumed that her reluctance to speak about them was due partly to the pain of having lost them and partly to the fact that, as a consequence, she knew very little about them. I’d also assumed, with no basis at all, that they’d died from natural causes.
That day, my mother told a different story. Her parents were Jehovah’s Witnesses who’d been rounded up in one of Stalin’s many mass deportations, forced onto a train, and shipped to the Siberian gulag where they’d presumably perished.
My surprise gave way to a potent mix of horror and grief. We were studying European history in school, so I knew that the Russian gulag was a network of prison labor camps where millions of people—some estimates as high as eighteen million—were worked to death mining gold, uranium, and tin; felling trees and shipping lumber; and building thousands of miles of roads and railways to fuel Russia’s modernization. The conditions in the camps were horrible: most of the prisoners died of starvation, exhaustion, disease, exposure, or abuse. I’d read about the gulag as something that had happened long ago and far away, never dreaming that my own grandparents were among the victims.
I felt dizzy from the shock, then angry. Why had my mother not told me before? Maybe she thought I was finally old enough to know something as serious as this. In that case, I wanted to respond maturely, so she would know that her faith in me was not misplaced. In those hard days after my father’s death, I was always trying to be strong for her, so she would have one less thing to worry about.
The photo album was on the table in front of us, closed. My mother’s eyes were misty with tears. I swallowed hard and told her that I was sorry I would never meet her parents, that I was very sorry for what they’d suffered, and what she herself had been through as a result. I said that I loved her and wanted her to be happy, and that I wanted to help her be happy however I could.
She smiled at me tenderly, brushing a strand of hair off my face. “What did I do to deserve you, Talya?”
“I love you, Mom,” I whispered. I often said those words to her, and I’ve repeated them frequently since.
“If you want to make me happy,” she said, “there’s one thing you can do. I know you like to ask a lot of questions. You’re only happy when you’re finding things out. But I’ve told you everything I know. So, please, for once, just let things be. This subject is difficult for me, and I don’t want to talk about it again.”
I promised, of course, and kept my word. But the horrifying knowledge lived and burned inside me nonetheless. I found myself pushed into a close personal relationship with the gigantic Stalinist horror, and I knew I’d never be the same.
Now, twenty-five years later, as I sat in my corner office at the George Washington University Medical Center, the idea that one of my grandparents might have survived the gulag seemed impossible, unreal. It was probably a hoax—some kind of weird new identity theft. A demand for money was probably coming next. But how could the obviously frightened young woman sitting before me have unearthed a name that had so little history attached to it, and that I barely knew myself? And why go to so much trouble? Certainly there were easier ways to extort money from a stranger.
I studied my visitor more closely. She had high round cheeks and a small jaw, narrow dark eyes and honey-brown skin. I saw no family resemblance at all. I was on the tall side, and my features were angular.
“Where did you say you were from?” I asked.
“Yakutsk,” I repeated, utterly blank. “Where’s that?”
I tried to picture Siberia as a relatively normal—if chilly in winter—region of the world where young women like Saldana Tarasova ate and slept and shopped and went to school. But I couldn’t manage it. My vision of Siberia was too tainted by its ugly history. To me, it was a mindscape of impenetrable darkness and killing cold; the vast icy crust at the end of the world where a good portion of history’s nightmares were stored; where, until this moment, I’d been sure my grandparents’ skeletons were layered with those of many others in an anonymous mass grave.
I said, “I was under the impression that Katarina Melnikova and her husband died in a prison camp.”
“Grandfather did not survive; Grandmother escaped.”
Escaped. The gulag camps were considered virtually escape-proof. The thinking went that if winter temperatures didn’t kill people, the sheer, ungodly distances would. I couldn’t help feeling a surge of interest in any person, related or not, who’d managed such a nervy, desperate feat. “She’s still alive?”
“She lives in a village on the Tatta River. She’s eighty-nine.”
I tried to imagine this, too. The young married woman in the photo had seemed vital, energetic. There was a simple, straightforward light in her eye and a trace of pleasant humor around her mouth. Apparently, this same woman now went about her business in a Siberian village. At age eighty-nine.
“Katarina Melnikova,” I repeated musingly, feeling the heavy Russian weight of the syllables on my lips. It was possible I’d never spoken her name out loud before. It was melodious and beautiful, but still nothing more than a name to me.
“How’s her health?” I asked, because it was something to say.
“She has the problems old people have.”
“She had more children, then. One? Two?”
“Just one. My mother, Lena. Lena Tarasova. My father lives in a different city. He has a new family,” Saldana confessed quickly, getting it out of the way.
“Is your mother in Yakutsk with you?”
“Yes, we have a flat there. I have a younger brother, Mikhail, who lived with us until recently.”
“Well…” I said in a tone of finality, placing my palms flat on my desk as I usually did before I stood up. But I couldn’t just end the conversation, as if it were a standard medical consultation. I had to respond differently. But how? I wasn’t yet willing to accept Ms. Tarasova’s statement as true. And if I did accept it, what then? It was all a little baffling.
“Well,” I hemmed. “Well, I really don’t know what to say. This does come as a shock. My mother will be so…surprised. Why…?” I tried to keep the reproach out of my voice. “Why was she never told?”
Saldana looked down at her hands. A few seconds of awkward silence passed.
There’d been some kind of messy family business, I guessed, for which the young woman in front of me—she didn’t look to be more than twenty-one—shouldn’t be held responsible. But anger prickled my skin nonetheless. My mother had spent her life believing her parents were dead. She’d dragged this weighty tragedy through, so far, sixty-six years of living, as if it were a soldered ball and chain. Why on earth had Katarina Melnikova chosen to remain unknown? Didn’t she care about the baby daughter she left with her brother in Kiev? And even if she had no maternal feelings at all—I saw plenty of examples of this baffling phenomenon in my practice—hadn’t she been the least bit curious? I knew it wasn’t fair to jump to conclusions about Katarina Melnikova, whose situation had been desperate, to say the least. Still, I was upset for my mother’s sake, worried about how she would react to the good news that Katarina was alive and well, and the bad news that she’d waited until now to make herself known.
“How did you find me?” I asked my visitor.
“We knew that Grandmother left her first child with her brother in Kiev when she was arrested. My mother tracked him down, and he gave us your mother’s married name. We couldn’t find her address, but we found yours. Your work address, that is.”
Saldana looked at me directly, her dark eyes anxious and hopeful. “I’m sorry. I should have called first, but I didn’t know how you’d feel. I was afraid you wouldn’t want to meet me, and I didn’t want to email for fear you wouldn’t reply. I couldn’t risk not talking to you.”
I blinked at her slowly, my mouth agape. The detail about the brother in Kiev had clinched it for me: Saldana was, must be, for real. It was simply too much to think that she would know where my mother was raised, and by whom, if her claim wasn’t true. A wave of strong emotion passed through me—joy. Then another emotion poured in behind it—fear. Fear that the joy wouldn’t last, that it would be stolen or destroyed somehow, before it had a chance to flower.
“How long are you in town?” I asked.
“Until tomorrow afternoon. My train back to New York leaves at four o’clock.” She explained that she was in the States to perform with a ballet company as part of a cultural exchange program. The dancers had been in rehearsal all week. Their show opened on Friday, one week from today. It had a two-week run, after which she would return to Russia.
“I’d love to take you to dinner, but I have something to do tonight, a work thing I can’t get out of. Can I meet you tomorrow?”
She nodded eagerly.
“Where are you staying?”
She named a cheap hotel on Rhode Island Avenue.
“That’s very near the Capitol Building. I’ll meet you there at nine tomorrow morning, on the lawn outside the west entrance, at the bottom of all the marble steps. In the meantime, if you need anything, please call.” As I jotted my cell number on the back of my business card, it occurred to me that my new-found cousin had gone to great lengths to meet me, that showing up in my office unannounced had been a risk, that she was a young person alone in a foreign country and might well be scared to death.
“I’m very glad you found me, Saldana,” I said warmly. “We’ll have a nice time tomorrow, yes?”
She accepted the card with two hands, as if it were a precious gift, and looked gratefully into my eyes, apparently convinced at last that she wasn’t going to be turned away. “Spasiba, Natalya Marchova,” she said.
The sound of my name in Russian sent an unwelcome chill through me—I had no love for the country my parents fled, despite my fluency in the language, which I saw merely as a skill I could use to reach more patients and serve them better. Like many children of immigrants, I deeply cherished my American identity.
“Call me Natalie. Come on, I’ll give you a lift back to your hotel.”
The evening was brilliant, all crystal and floral centerpieces, white wine flowing and waiters weaving among the guests. What made it so magical was the fact that virtually everyone present really did wish the guest of honor well. For nearly thirty years, Dr. Andrew Solomon, my retiring mentor, had been the medical center’s standard bearer and moral compass, a brilliant, dedicated physician who’d managed to make us all a little better than we really were. I couldn’t count the number of times I’d knocked on his door with a question, a problem, or simply the need to talk unguardedly to someone who understood the kinds of things that troubled me. Not once did he make me feel small or stupid; I always left feeling stronger and more clear. You cannot put a price on that; you cannot say thank you enough. That’s what I said in my little speech, and the words, being heartfelt, came easily, no notes required. At the end, I could tell by all the smiling faces—some of the women even tissue-dabbing their eyes with care—that I’d done him justice, and that made me glad.
Afterwards, there were pictures, and some whispered nudges about how I was one of several candidates being considered for Dr. Soloman’s job. Then quite suddenly, in a flurry of flashing bulbs, I found myself standing between Dr. Solomon and Dr. Joel White, my arms lightly encircling each of their waists, and my inner world quickly crumbled. When the picture-taking was over, I excused myself shakily, found an empty table at the back of the room, and sat down among the balled-up linen napkins and lipstick-smeared coffee cups. People smiled at me from a distance, and I smiled awkwardly back. The dance band started up, the party rolled into full swing, and I was relieved to be left alone.
I saw Joel reach out to his brand-new wife, Melissa, and pull her onto the parquet. Joel and I had been medical students, interns, and residents together. We’d helped and stood by each other all that time, sharing notes, gripes, sandwiches, the flu, our heady successes, devastating failures, and the sheer addictive exhaustion of our work. We’d made love, too, using sex in all the ways it shouldn’t be used: as an antidote to loneliness, a sedative for anxiety, a novelty to break the boredom, a way to obliterate ourselves. We’d talked about marriage a few times, in a polite, obligatory way, but we were almost too close, too familiar, to take the idea seriously. For a few years, we lived in different cities completing fellowships, then found ourselves together again at GW, where we’d been close colleagues for the last decade. Now, with Joel graying at the temples, and my once-long hair cut in a short, simple style, we had an intimacy that was in some ways more profound, more crucial to our lives, than mere romantic love. We could almost read each other’s minds.
Melissa was not of our world. She was untested—coddled, in my opinion—superficial, as lucky people tended to be, and effusively light-hearted. She teased Joel in public about his work habits, as if they were a charming flaw. It was clear that she planned to cure him of workaholism with regular doses of social events, dinners and movies, and weekend getaways. The perfect confidence she brought to this task was just another of her delightful traits.
In my opinion, Melissa was naively miscalculating the depths of her husband’s dedication to his career. But how could a woman as protected as she truly understand a man like him? Had she ever seen an anesthetized patient stretched out on an operating table, or reached into that person’s liver to pull out a golf-ball-sized cancerous tumor? Had her after-work ears ever burned with the echoes of children crying from chronic pain and wretched, innocent bewilderment? Had she ever attempted to relax before a crackling fire, only to close a novel and grab a textbook she’d pored over a hundred times before because she needed to be absolutely certain, right then and there, that there wasn’t a single detail she’d overlooked?
As I watched her gracefully twirling at the end of Joel’s arm, in a lovely dress that fit her so well, that managed to be both tasteful and flirtatious, I felt my lips curl with unwanted envy. Young Melissa probably didn’t smell like antiseptic even after she showered. She could still enjoy the sweet feminine luxury of doting on the cuteness of babies because she’d never had to watch one die.
I’d tried not to see Joel’s marriage as a betrayal. I’d worked at not seeing it that way. But ever since that sunny winter wedding, when the smile on his face glowed brighter than any smile I’d seen on it before, there had been a sharp new pain in my heart and a grating tension between us. He’d taken to lecturing me in a friendly way on what he was learning from Melissa about the all-important work/life balance, on the apparently critical need to get out and enjoy yourself once in a while, and, to my horror, I’d heard resentment quivering in my retorts. I believed I knew only too well what he was trying to say: I was supposed to find someone, too. He needed that to complete his own happiness. It would free him up somehow, in some complicated way, if he could confidently release me into someone else’s care.
But it wasn’t that simple for me. Men had never really looked at me very much, and lately, they didn’t look at me at all. It had been a long time since I had a date.
The truth was that I’d managed to become what the Chinese call a “leftover woman,” a woman who’d traded the best of her child-bearing years for power and status. It was an ugly term, conjuring, as it did, stale smells and lumpy textures. Moldy food items that no one really wanted, that were kept around just until they could be guiltlessly thrown away.
This was obviously an unhealthy way to see oneself, so I was glad that the dark thoughts came only in the middle of sleepless nights, which, due to my chronic state of fatigue, were rare. For the most part, I succeeded in not giving my situation much thought. I was only aware of it in unexpected moments like the one that had just occurred, when, my arm encircling Joel’s waist, I felt his taut, graceful body under his suit jacket, and his familiar smell rose to my head like the world’s most excellent wine.
A hot sun—fat and round like the exaggerated yellow orb in a child’s drawing—was climbing the eastern sky when I arrived at the National Mall the next morning. The city had been in the grip of a heat spell for the last week, brutal even by Washington standards. I’d slept badly, my dreams crowded with images of wooden sentry towers and bedraggled prisoners shuffling across snowfields, and my early morning run had been an arduous, discouraging affair. Before leaving my condo, I’d donned big dark glasses and a Washington Nationals baseball cap.
Saldana appeared at the top of the marble steps a few minutes after nine, wearing the same yellow dress and ungainly platform sandals she’d had on the day before. The only difference was that her glossy black hair was woven in a long braid that fell across one shoulder. She caught sight of me when I waved, and began descending the stairs with effortless grace. There was something magnetic about her that drew the eye, that made the sneakered tourists turn and stare. I was reminded of a line from Byron, She walks in beauty, like the night / Of cloudless climes and starry skies.
“Come and sit,” I said as she approached. “It’s a glorious morning, even if it is beastly hot.”
“Sorry I’m late.”
“It’s only a few minutes. Have you had breakfast yet?”
She nodded a bit timidly, as if worried that eating breakfast had been an etiquette mistake.
“Good. So have I,” I lied. “Why don’t we walk for a while, before it gets even hotter. We can head up to the Washington Monument. There are a lot of wonderful museums on the way, and we can stop in one of them if you’d like.”
“Thank you. That would be very nice,” she said with perfect politeness, leaving me with no idea whether she meant it or not.
The mall was filling with hikers and lawmakers, mothers with running toddlers and dog-walkers tethered to several leashes at once. Saldana and I strolled to the Washington Monument, chatting all the way, past sprinklers spewing a fine rain on parched lawns. Then it was on to the Reflecting Pool, and all the way to the Lincoln Memorial, with Saldana gradually becoming more open and relaxed. When I asked what she liked best about the United States, she replied without hesitation: the cars.
“There are so many, and they all look brand new,” she said. “Where I’m from, only the richest people can afford them; everyone else has to take buses. I’ve spent half my life on street corners waiting for buses to come. It’s the worst in winter, because some days there’s so much moisture in the air that you’re in a fog of frost and can’t see very far in front of you. You don’t know the bus is coming until you hear the motor; then it looms out at you all of a sudden. Buses used to scare me when I was little.” She offered me an incongruously bright smile, pleased to have offered up this little intimate fact, and happily added, “If I lived in America, I’d buy a convertible and drive it all the way to Beverly Hills!”
I smiled at her enthusiasm. “What else do you like about America?”
“The handicap ramps,” she said more soberly. “So people in wheelchairs can go wherever they want. In Yakutsk, they mostly stay inside.”
Her impressions of the US weren’t all positive, though. She was displeased with the dance company she was performing with because, as she haughtily explained, they practiced sloppy techniques that a Russian ballet master would never tolerate.
“They rehearse too much,” she said. “It’s not necessary. If you know a piece, you know it. You don’t need to keep repeating it over and over again, until you hate every step and just the sound of the music makes you cringe.”
The museums we passed hadn’t interested her, but she was very keen on the Botanic Garden when I mentioned it, so from the Lincoln Memorial we strolled all the way back towards the Capitol Building, except on the other side of the mall. By this time, heat was radiating up from the ground in palpable waves, and the air was a nearly unbreathable soup of stifling humidity. Saldana’s bare arms had grown pink from the sizzling rays. I hastened our steps, eager to reach air conditioning.
The main hall of the Botanic Garden was like an oasis when we finally entered it: cool and lush, its light softened by a soaring glass dome. The place had just opened for the day. A noisy, excited throng of tourists was milling about, snapping group photos and grinning selfies. Saldana looked a little wilted from our hike.
I led her through glass doors into the tropical rain forest, which was hushed and cool, despite the thick humidity. A dense earthy fragrance greeted us, and there was a greeny dimness to the air, as most of the light was blocked by the thick jungle canopy overhead. We wandered for a while in companionable awe before taking a seat on a wooden bench tucked into a corner. Tangled ropey vines dripped from branches, and the ground was lushly carpeted with flat-leaved ferns in varied shades of yellow and green. I knew—and I think Saldana knew it, too—that with so much friendly, superficial banter behind us, the time had come for her to honestly explain herself—the long train ride, the surprise appearance, the urgency. What she really wanted.
“I love that you’re here, Saldana. I love getting to know you. But I wonder if there isn’t some reason for your visit you haven’t told me yet,” I said.
She froze a little, then swallowed hard enough that I could see her neck muscles move. “I have something to ask.”
“Go ahead.” I wondered if she wanted money, which I was prepared to give, up to a point.
“I’m very proud to have been sent to the United States as a representative of my country. This is a wonderful opportunity for me to share the artistry of Yakutia with American audiences. Now more than ever, when there’s so much hostility in the world, it’s important to promote understanding between our two countries. Whether Russian or American, we’re all the same underneath our skin. Don’t you agree, Natalie?” She produced a tortured-looking smile.
I nodded, wondering what on earth was prompting such a stilted speech.
“It’s very unusual for a Russian citizen such as myself to be granted a visa to the United States. I’ll probably never have such luck again. I’m scheduled to return to my country soon, as you know. But…”
“But everything’s so nice here! America is a good place to be a dancer! And if I couldn’t be a dancer, I could go to school! There are a lot of schools in America. My English is not good right now, but I would study very hard and soon have a job to support myself.” Her smile folded into what it had wanted to be all along: a grimace. “But my visa is only for thirty days.”
An Indian family passed in front of us, the woman in a brilliant sari and two children trailing wide-eyed with wonder. We remained quiet until they were gone and for some moments afterward. I had a sense of where this was going and was hoping I was wrong.
“Have you looked in to getting your visa extended?” I asked.
“Not possible,” she said quickly. “It was issued for cultural exchange, not work or study. I would have to have a job here to get it extended, and even then, it’s very difficult. The rules are very strict.”
“You might try calling the US State Department.”
“I’m a principal dancer at a respected ballet company in Russia,” she whispered in a low voice, as if revealing a state secret. “I am…what you call…a national treasure. My country will never let me leave.”
“Are you sure? I could put you in touch with someone—an immigration lawyer or someone like that.” But even as the words were leaving my mouth, I knew they were hollow. I was just trying to create some cover for myself. If I could pass Saldana off to someone else, I might be able to slip away from any involvement. “A professional will give you the best advice for your situation. I’m sure there are some legal avenues open to you.”
Saldana stiffened, and spoke the next words with surprising steel. “I’m not returning to Russia when my visa expires. I will remain in the United States. Things will be very difficult for me at first. I’ll need so much—a place to live, US dollars, food. It would be much easier if I had someone, an American citizen, to help me out.”
My cheeks grew warm with rising blood. So this was the reason for the surprise visit. I was being asked to help her defect. I could forgive her opportunism; I even admired it. What I couldn’t abide was her naïveté.
“Saldana, listen to me. Before you go too far down this road, you’d better think long and hard. Maybe you’ve got some picture in your head of what America is like. Picket fences, apple pie—I don’t know. But whatever you’re imagining, I’m going to tell you right now you’re dead wrong. Life here isn’t easy for undocumented aliens. You’d be hiding in the shadows, always looking over your shoulder. And you, of all people, have so much to lose. I doubt you’d be able to dance in a company here without papers. Are you really willing to give up your career?”
“I was told there are jobs in hotels,” she said staunchly.
“Hotels? Are you serious? How could working in a hotel possibly be good for you? Long, exhausting hours for low pay. Being treated like a servant constantly—and still not able to make ends meet. You’re a ballet dancer, Saldana. An artist starting out on a wonderful career that you’ve worked very hard to achieve. Do you even know what you’re saying?”
Tears pooled in her eyes. “Please, Dr. March. Natalie. Please…”
But I wouldn’t allow myself to be swayed by emotion, not in this case, where there was so much to lose. “I’m sorry. I can’t in good conscience support your choice to do something that I know would be difficult and dangerous, and that I honestly believe you would live to regret. And then there’s the not-so-small matter of the law. What you’re proposing is illegal. You must know that. If there’s some other way I can help you, I would certainly like to do it. But you can’t expect me to intentionally break the law. I’m very sorry, Saldana. It grieves me to say this. But I won’t help you defect.”
A few tears spilled over her lower lids. She brushed them away quickly, before they could roll down her cheeks. “I was hoping…since we’re cousins…”
“You thought our being related would make a difference?”
“Yes,” she said in a small voice.
“It makes no difference, Saldana. If anything, it only makes me care about you more. And what about your relatives back in Russia? Your mother and brother, your grandmother. Have you thought about them?”
“My mother is the one who sent me here! She says I have to stay, no matter what. I can’t go home!”
“What do you mean, you can’t go home?”
She fairly spit out the next words in a mix of bitterness and despair. “I never wanted to come here, but when my mother found out I could get a visa through this cultural exchange, she said I had to take it. That it was an opportunity I wouldn’t get again, that I’d be sorry all my life if I didn’t get out of Russia when I had the chance. She told me to contact you, that you’d help me because we’re family. And she promised that she and my brother would join me here soon.”
She was madly twisting the ring. “But I think she was lying to give me courage, because she never said a word before about wanting to leave Russia. She loves her country, as I do! And I know for a fact Misha would never come here!”
Her face reddened and crumpled, and fresh tears streamed down her cheeks. She swiped them away with her small, perfect hands, tried to control the heaving of her breath.
At a loss for words, I tried to put my arm around her shoulder but she pulled away slightly, not wanting to be consoled, and continued in a rush, “Something is happening to my family, something bad. I didn’t speak to my brother at all before I left. My mother said he was away on a trip, but where would he be that he couldn’t call to say goodbye? And why would he have gone on a trip without telling me? When he moved away, we stayed in touch, then I didn’t hear from him at all. That’s not like him! My mother was trying to act normal, but it was obvious she was upset. I begged her to tell me what was happening, but she only kept repeating that America is a wonderful country, that I would be the first to go but soon we’d all be here together, happier than before. Yet she looked so sad!”
Saldana grabbed my forearm with fingers strong as talons. “I only agreed to come because I could see how much it meant to her, and because I thought she might be telling the truth—maybe she and Misha really would come to America! Now I’m sure I made a terrible mistake. It was wrong for me to leave the country when they might be in trouble. What if they need my help? But now I’m here, so far away, and I don’t dare go back because my mother worked so hard to get me here—she used all her money to pay a bribe for my visa—and if I go back it will ruin everything she tried to do. Maybe this really is what she wants for me—to be happy in America. But how can I be happy if she and Misha aren’t with me? I don’t want to be here alone!”
She broke down into unfettered tears, her thin body wracked by more sorrow and confusion than I could readily imagine. I succeeded in putting my arm around her quaking shoulders, murmuring “I’m so sorry” several times. Eventually, she quieted, rubbing her reddened cheeks roughly with the heels of her hands like children do.
My mind was racing with questions, sympathy, fear. I had no idea how to respond or what to do. “I wish I could help,” I murmured, as much to myself as to her.
“You can! Let me stay with you for a little while after the ballet, just until I get settled here.”
I didn’t have the heart to deny her again, but I was still a long way from saying yes. Playing for time, I said, “Come on, let’s walk some more.”
We glided like two ghosts toward the next exhibit, as if just the talk of defection had made us both a little shadowy. Through a set of glass doors fogged with humidity, we emerged into the Orchid Room, moist and dim and thick with vegetation. Hundreds of vivid pink, purple, and orange flowers clung parasitically to the tangled limbs and trunks of their unwitting arboreal hosts, and sprouted impossibly from the crevices of mossy rocks.
Too preoccupied to pay attention to the beauty, I led Saldana silently to the next exhibit room, where the dry heat of the desert accosted us. Rows of paddle-armed cacti rose stiffly from the drained, monochromatic landscape, giving testament to the stunning adaptability of lifeforms.
I was painfully aware of the tiny dancer trailing behind me, of her terrible hope and profound vulnerability. I feared that she was already doomed, like a patient with a fatal illness who didn’t feel sick yet but whose days were numbered nonetheless. I knew I had to honestly describe the risks and the probable course of events to her, just as if she were a patient facing tough choices and tougher odds. But what did I know about immigration, really—either legal or illegal? It wasn’t my specialty. There were experts out there who were in a much better position to advise her. I realized with a relieved sigh that I had no business counseling her until I’d checked with them and ascertained the facts. A second opinion, if you will.
In the medicinal plant section, we sat down again. The species arrayed around us were mostly small, each one tidy and unique and a little odd. The light was clean and white; the air held a subtle astringent bitterness. Saldana was fidgety, awaiting my verdict.
“Saldana,” I began, “I think that before we go any further with this, we should talk to someone who knows the ins and outs, the loopholes, of the whole immigration process. An immigration lawyer, for example. There’s got to be a way for you to get what you want legally.”
She looked frightened and completely skeptical.
“We have to give it a shot,” I urged. “What if there’s a solution that neither of us knows right now? Don’t you see? This whole thing could be simpler than we think.”
“I don’t know,” she said fretfully. “What if they turn me in?”
“They won’t. Everything you say to a lawyer is held in the strictest confidence. They’re not allowed to share your information with anyone else or do anything against your will. They’re just there to lay out the facts and give you the best advice.”
“You know people who do that?”
“Not personally, but I can find someone. Just give me a few days. Your name won’t be mentioned, I promise.”
Her face was pale, and she was twisting her silver ring back and forth erratically. “I don’t want to get in trouble.”
“I should talk to my mother first.”
“Yes, good idea. Call her, and tell her what I said. Tell her I want to help you, but I don’t want to break the law, and I can cover your legal fees. Do you want me to talk to her, too?”
She was biting her lower lip. “Maybe later. I’ll let you know.”
“You have my card, right?”
She patted her small purse. “Right here.”
“All right, so I’ll come up to New York next weekend for your performance—I’d love to see it. By then I should have some answers for you, and we can talk about everything again and decide what to do.”
She let out a sigh of capitulation, but her eyes remained clouded with anxiety.
I reached for her small hand and gently squeezed it. “Please don’t worry. You have three weeks before your visa is up. That’s plenty of time for us to figure this out.” I was starting to convince myself.
“And if we don’t?”
“Let’s take one thing at a time.”
“Natalie, please. I need to know the truth. What if I can’t stay legally?”
“First things first,” I replied evenly, putting her off again. Her face fell in disappointment, but she seemed resigned.
After lunch at a little restaurant near the Capitol, we picked up her bag at her hotel and walked over to Union Station in time for her four o’clock departure. She was quiet as we stood side-by-side in the cavernous, echoing hall, in a thick press of travelers. When the loudspeaker announced that the New York train was boarding, and passengers began thronging toward the designated track, she turned to me and said quietly, “Please hurry. There’s not much time.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll see you soon.”
We kissed three times on the cheek—left, right, left—as Russian women sometimes did, and she dashed off to join the jostling queue. I watched her disappear into the crowd of busy Americans, just as she hoped to do.
I turned away with troubled thoughts. No part of me wanted to break the law by harboring an illegal alien. But Saldana clearly had no intention of returning to Russia. She would be alone and vulnerable in New York City or wherever she chose to go. How could I justify not offering her help? But if I did decide to help her, it wouldn’t be as simple and straightforward as she seemed to think. There would be many challenges that neither of us could foresee. It would be cruel to go only part of the way with her and then let her fall. I’d have to be willing to stand by her for as long as she needed me to.
I was in what seemed an impossible quandary. The best I could do was hope that I discovered a way to resolve it before I saw her again.