That last week in Moscow, I was seeing ghosts.
Maybe it was just fatigue. There were a million things to do before I could leave, and every night I stayed up late trying to finish them. On Friday morning when I came into work I found six emails I’d sent the night before from my home computer; the last had been sent at four in the morning.
To my sleep-starved eyes, dazzled by sunlight, gleaming roofs, and flying pigeons, Moscow was haunted. Wherever I went I saw my younger self: going about her business, getting stuck into battles and caught up in love affairs, dreaming, planning, despairing, learning, walking inch by embattled inch the path to get...here.
I crossed Red Square on the way to work and met myself at twenty-three, on my first visit ever, grinning like a victorious boxer at that heart-stopping view. Down by the canal my twenty-six-year-old shadow was running, swathed in wool, leaving footsteps in the snow. My dispirited self, as I was last year, appeared in reflection in the boutique windows on Tverskaya. The ghosts of friends haunted metro entrances, office doorways and restaurants, recalling stories long forgotten and feelings long buried.
Spring was part of the magic. The sun had been shining for weeks, unlocking everything winter had shut down. Every tree was in leaf and the muddy earth had exploded into green. Empty lots were a glimpse of paradise, lovely with birches and soft grass. Even Moscow’s grim tower blocks became real neighborhoods, places to stroll and wonder.
We’d put it off till the end, but now good-byes were in order. One by one my friends came to meet me. We walked under the trees, lounged in cafes or out on the roof, said whatever was left unsaid, and called back in memory what suddenly appeared to be the good old days. Everything was sweet and sad, people was kind and good. The trees bent down to us, the air was soft. At night the stars twinkled. It was another Moscow, a city I’d never seen before and don’t imagine I’ll see again, a perfect haven of peace and beauty.
Dying should be like this, I kept thinking. A walk, an embrace. Everything easy, everything understood. And then farewell.
Friday was my last day: a whole day of saying good-bye. I hadn’t realized how dear my colleagues were until I had to part with them. Everyone seemed to have a surprise for me, something tender or funny or hopeful, which they had saved until the last to reveal. I went from one farewell to another, passed from hand to hand, from noon until eleven that night when Max A, just arrived from Orenburg and blinking with fatigue, drove in from the airport to see me. He helped me pack and sat with me a while, steadying me with his presence, as always when we worked together. When he finally went home I lay down for a few hours’ sleep.
Around three in the morning I got up and went down to the lobby, checked out, and piled all my stuff into a car. We drove through pre-dawn Moscow, empty and mysterious as a drawing in charcoal. Now the ghosts gathered together and called out from the street corners, the night-lit offices, the bridges over the Moskva. Was I really leaving them behind? I looked back over my shoulder, straining to catch glimpse of buildings suddenly precious, views I had never thought to treasure. Lost voices spoke in the darkened car, and I sunk myself in voluptuous regret. For ten years this city had been the center of my life.
The sun was just rising when we got to Domodedovo airport. Here was the familiar routine: check in, customs, passport control, blue plastic booties, security check. It was hard to believe this wasn’t just a business trip, another hop to Kiev or Orenburg or Urengoi. I couldn’t just check out of the hotel, get on a plane, and leave, could I? Was it that simple?
The boarding announcement came. In hushed silence, full of doubt and hope, I walked down the airway and approached the door. I paused for a moment and shook my head. And then I stepped onto the plane.