Late in the evening on New Year’s Day I was angling to go out and look at the moon. We used to be able to see the sky more clearly before huge chunks of our neighborhood were annexed by the city and summarily saddled with streetlights. But there is still one little stretch at the end of our street that has escaped this fate, at least thus far.
Mom proposed that we go out for a nightwalk. Nightwalk. All one word, and when it stands alone, it requires no article, no determination of its definite or indefinite status. I was a bit resistant at first- a quick peep was more what I had in mind, since it was so fiercely cold (by which I mean about 30 degrees. Cold for this city). Mom was undeterred and proffered some huge coats we have hiding in the closet under the stairs. I went along.
One of those coats was mine. I hadn’t worn it in years- it was my Russia coat. I pulled it off the hanger and dragged it (it’s at least as long as I am) into Mom’s room to put it on. I laid my hands on it to turn it over and just stood there, staring at my fingertips resting lightly on its silky surface, feeling the thickness of its memories, instantaneously transmitted to my body.
I remember so sharply that winter before I left for Russia. How we pored over boots and guidebooks, scarves and socks. But choosing my coat was the most important mission. We finally found it in a Land’s End catalog: a long quilted down sleeping bag of a coat, full of pockets on the outside and inside (perfect for stashing your leather gloves and your tram fare), with a hood that zipped off (for those magical days when the sky might deign to hover somewhere above +10 degrees Celsius), and, most importantly, black as midnight, so as not to announce me as some kind of naïve rainbow bright foreigner.
I remember the day it came in the mail, how I skipped back into the house to open the box. I threw the coat on over some little dress I was wearing and ran out into the January cold. Духовка. The Oven. That’s what I called that coat, it was so deliciously warm. I wore it almost every single day I was in Russia, the few exceptions being a handful of days in May when I could get away with wearing its younger cousin, a down vest I lovingly referred to as Микровальновка, The Microwave.
Touching it, running my fingers over my coat that night transformed me, even if just for a moment, into the woman that I was then, exactly seven years ago. I remembered the elation of exploring St. Petersburg in that coat, the only light for its winter darkness the tiny sugar grains of snow caught in the yellow glow of the streetlights, preserved in perfect silence. It might have been the first time I ever fell in love, and it was certainly the first and only time I have ever fallen in love with a city. It’s a different kind of love, that, one that doesn’t leave any room for insecurities or rejection- you are simply there, you love, and the city itself is tangible evidence of its love in return, always surprising you with exquisite tokens of undying affection: the bells at Alexander Nevsky Monastery, translucent curtains on the windows of the trams (lovingly installed by the ticket-collectors who make it their home), the bustle and vibrant colors of the Kuznechny Market, where you’d never know you were in the grip of a Russian winter, and where blood-stained butchers never fail to call you over to choose from among their pink and marbled wares: “Hey beautiful, don’t walk away!”
This is the woman I held in my hands when I pulled my coat out of the closet that night. I’ve wondered sometimes, as I’ve grown older and my heart has turned more toward home, where she has gone. Is it that my delusions of invincibility have slowly faded away? I’d still like to think of myself as a fairly adventurous person, but I don’t feel the same tug east (or north, or south, or west, for that matter) that I used to. I’ve not been to Russia in almost six years, have not left this country in four, and I think that’s something this earlier self of mine would have had some trouble with.
It’s not that the prospect of exploring terra incognita doesn’t still make my heart skip a beat, or that I wouldn’t love to return to the place that literally made me weep for joy for weeks after I’d arrived (every night: my journal and my tears), and then made me weep weeks in advance over the prospect of leaving it. It’s just, I suppose, that my terra incognita finds itself here now; it’s something that I explore, that I see with fresh eyes, every day, and something that fills my heart so completely.
It’s not so much the space itself, but the fact that everything is new when I see it with Eric. What makes me weep for joy now is not the memory of those first euphoric days in Russia, when I’d periodically pause to consult a map and recall with glee that I was literally on the other side of the earth, but instead the life that we have built together, the adventures we’ve crafted together, the conversations that we share, the myriad of fascinating things that we are constantly learning from and about each other, the hours we’ve spent laughing and loving one another: these are my Nevsky Prospect, my Dostoevsky Museum, my tram tickets shoved into the pockets of my coat–my terra incognita.