June 2nd —Katerina accompanies me from the hostel to the train station. Arya comes later, as she has another commitment. This is her, however: late, overextended, dipping in and out, showing the effort.
The train station is the one I arrived at four days earlier. A stop on a railway beginning in Vladivostok with a western terminus in Moscow, a literal but not figurative end. Tracks do not end as clean and cut as book covers. How far it goes depends on how far a pocketbook and imagination will let it. From Moscow there is Kiev. From Kiev, Budapest. Venice, Milan, Zurich. For another person, the list could differ, the path could be south or east. Back, even. A reverse through Mongolia, China. A return to Australia. My Melbourne routine has an easement on my life, exercisable anytime. I might return to it. I have that freedom.
Arya and Katerina have forced me into relinquishing my bags. Arya holds the trekker, whose straps alone engulf her. They refuse to entertain my protests.
Finding my train, they help me board.
My compartment is snug and furnished. There are two opposing couches that will convert to beds. A nice, clean square window centered above a table, which is the size and shape of a sawed-in-half skateboard. Atop my couch are folded linens. Atop the table is a welcome box. Inside: pack of biscuits, tea, coffee, paper tubes of sugar, sewing materials. The compartment is occupied but presently without its occupant. This layover is the longest—thirty minutes. Passengers ambulate on the platform.
Gauging from the minimal imprint on the compartment, the companion has unlikely been here long. A day, perhaps not even a night. They got to taste privacy though. Luxurious autonomy. By the belongings’ nature and order, the companion is older. The welcome box contents are aligned on the table aside from a leather phone case with a black Nokia and a silver wrist watch. A laminated card for Russia’s rail system is on top. A book that looks like a Bible has me thinking the person (a man, I suppose), is a priest. The book is open. Its pages are as thin as chalk scrapings, the fore-edge is gold, the cover is supple leather. That the text is in columns about confirms my suspicion until Katerina reads a sentence at my directing and says, “It is science fiction or some such thing.”
My curiosity is intense and hankering since this occupant and I have this compact space together for four days. Those observations take a moment, yet none are my first. Nor are they the most enduring. I forget them, in fact. Only by reading my diary later do I remember them, and even then, they read like the observations of a stranger.
I retain one memory, however, that is as sensorily vivid and real as the hand writing this is now.
Walking into the room, I realize it contains the worst, singularly most disgustingly odoriferous body odor I have ever smelled in my life.
That morning, by pure chance, I’d read about an airplane that turned around due to a man’s body odor. I had laughed. How bad could it have been?
How naive. This body odor would have people running for the exits in air.
Katerina grasps her nostrils. Arya’s eyes water. My thoughts are simultaneous and demanding. How has this man altered chemistry? Odor particles bonded to the furniture keep his scent even without his presence. Can an open window save this? I open it. I fear what’s next. Do I convince him to bathe? Wear deodorant? What if I just die? Is this how it ends? I hope my nose will let the smell permeate. Placate the offensive through exposure.
Katerina and Arya, once eager to wait with me until departure, now beg to leave. Ten minutes left and regrettably we say goodbye. They look at me like I am a man awaiting death.
I take my position in the room. Russia’s west will approach me. For the man, its east will leave.
From the window seat, I watch the people loitering on the platform. I scan for a priest, but see no man in vestments. Nor is there an obvious serial odorist. Until…yes, him. A human blimp in a Brazilian soccer jersey. I am certain. Evidence is in the pillow across from me that has a single arch of dried blood on it, like from a hangnail, and this man has a finger covered in gauze. He fulfills all my expectations of a slob. He smokes, his neck bulges like a bullfrog’s, and he wears Adidas shorts without thought to his uncomely white, flamingo legs.
While I watch this man and make him my enemy, footsteps approach. Like with a gorilla paddock, I smell the approach before I see the hairy mass. By the time the footsteps bring a man to the doorway, I am mouth breathing. The caustic smell triggers my taste buds. My palate, wanting to prevent me from digesting whatever foul thing it senses, tells my stomach to retch. Very quiet, very surreptitious dry heaves.
The innocent Brazilian remains on the platform, now offensive to someone else.
My compartment mate is colossal. His skin is a phyllo of translucent layers that in their aggregate make an opaqueness that solidifies him yet keeps him pale. His chest and shoulders are those of someone accustomed to brawny labor or brawling. His hands, which are dainty and smooth, do not support that theory. Whatever muscle he had is gone. Loose skin congregates at his biceps. Age-wise, he is a good 70 or bad 60. His hair, a two-length buzz, is there except for two inlets receding from his temples. His cotton crew neck is loose and unwashed. The odor is worse when he moves because it fans off of him. Twenty minutes after he moved through the hallway, his smell remains in it.
Sitting, he doesn’t much look at me. When he does, I say to him, “Antonio,” and extend my hand.
Doubtlessly Russian, his countenance is unreadable.
The train is moving, and I am not yet accustomed to the smell. My fear increases as the realization that this durian fruit of a human is going to be my company. For how long? I point to the word Moscow on my ticket and look at him as if to query. “Da,” he says. Sunk. Options? Each that I envision is as absurd as the one before. Exchange my ticket at the next station and wait for the next train? Impossible. This train—train 001—goes through Russia just once a week; my visa will expire. I could offer—jokingly of course—my deodorant. It is a cultural exchange. How would I instigate? Take the stick out, roll myself, hold it out for him to admire the purple color, and hope he gets the message?
I leave and search for an English speaker. I have not yet formulated what role they’ll have, but I desire one. There are Germans, a Japanese woman, and Ukrainians and Russians. I determine I must lay my hope in authority, the person who is paid to deal with this type of awkward. The embodiment of this authority is a our short and bespectacled carriage attendant, who looks to be in a hurry all the time.
Using Google translate, I compose the following for her to read after securing her attention: “My roommate has very bad odor. Is there anything I can do. Do not tell him. It is embarrassing.”
Like the accused awaiting the jury foreman to scan the verdict before reading, I wait.
“Net,” she says.
Unable to give up, I type, “Do Russians get mad if told to put on deodorant?”
She shrugs and turns into her little compartment. I prepare to sulk back. Perhaps it’s better to accept stench than risk alienation and insult. Just then, the lady taps me on the shoulder and holds up a plastic bag. It contains a small square container the size of a quarter, inside of which is a yellow jelly. I smell it—air freshener—a breathing spell. I about kiss her feet.
This freshener is to become essential to my routine. Prior to entering the room, I rub my fingers across it. I walk in holding my breath. Once I sit down, I put my fingers over my nose so that the first breath I take is wholly the freshener’s remnants. Little by little, I expand the aperture of my enclosed fingers, making sure to allow minuscule bits of odor in so I can accumulate without gagging. I keep the freshener on my book as I read, on my laptop while I type, on my pillow when I sleep.
The freshener, though essential, is provisional. To allow myself comfort in this setting, I must adapt. As the stick bug has already discovered, safe adaption requires outright mimicry. If my nose cannot distinguish my odor from Nic’s, then the battle is over. There is no fight left to have. I must join his side. To achieve this, I stop cleaning. No hands, armpits, or crotch. No deodorant, no soap. The shirt I am wearing on day one is the same I wear on day four. Ditto pants. Ditto underwear. I embrace cotton’s ability to fully marinate in my body odor, and what this costs me is my dignity and a gaping hole in the seat of my khakis. At day three, I too waft when I move. On day four, I am as ripe in a banana.
English speaking people find each other. George finds me on the platform of Tayshet, our next stop. He chats as if we’ve been chummy for years. He is twenty-six. He seems to be afflicted with nerves despite having the confidence to pop in on a stranger’s solitary walk down the platform. He is British and his tongue is heavily involved with his words. His gums are sensitive, and when he talks too much they bleed.
“I’ve met two Hong Kong nursing students in 3rd class with me. We’re getting together for a beer in the dining car if you want to join?”
An hour later, George finds me in my cabin and takes me into 3rd class to meet the Hong Kong girls.
3rd class is full of light, the beds are slats stacked three high. There are no isolated compartments, but rather side alcoves. They hardly afford privacy. Their benefit is in being out of the way, so the many extruding feet have less chance of being bumped.
The majority of occupants are military boys. Russia has compulsory military service. These boys have put in their year and are returning home. They were out beyond Siberia. Not just in Russia’s extremes, but the world’s. Cities on the Chukchi and Bering seas that survive for their ports and minerals. Whole cities out there have been swallowed with ice. The boys have served through 24-hour, ink black, -40 degree days and it is over. They create a mood in the cabin that is relentlessly jovial and ribald. Their shirtless bodies have made the insides warm and thick with their condensate, which fuzzes upon the windows. The scent is a rank mixture of sausage, cigarette smoke, and ball sweat.
At stops, which are infrequent, the boys—none of whom look to be older than 19 and are all bones—slip from out their lounge Adidas track wear and into camouflage fatigues upon whose chests are pinned paltry rows of medals. Eager families wait outside. Banners wave like in liberation. Drums are beaten until the air is deaf. Confetti falls. Boys step onto the platform, and they’re come upon and latched onto by crying mothers and sentimental fathers who embrace their sons with a tightness to prevent their ever leaving again. Along the corridors, up against the side of the train, at arms reach from the glad welcome parties, is another procession: boys without families, without loved ones. They march with their duffles heaved over their backs and hunch their way alone into the yawning, shadowed exits of the station.
The four of us—George the Brit and the two Hong Kong girls—move towards the dining car. We split a group of soldiers sneaking a cigarette break. They use the slight gaps between two railcars as the place for their smoke to escape. The 3rd class conductor has anticipated this. She’s seen it all, I presume. She rushes in, howling and waving like a charging boar, and shoos them off, whipping a towel at their necks. The boys scramble, getting up, tossing their cigarettes outbound, and make their escape through whatever exit they can find.
We play a game like gin rummy and drink beers. One girl excels at the game; the thumping we receive diminishes our appetite for it. A Russian, similar in type to the trucker hat Ed Hardy t-shirt man of America’s potato region, is ecstatic to see we are drinking Russian beers and have chosen to visit his country. He insists on shaking mine and then George’s hand. Then he wants pictures. His row and gesticulating animation wins the attention of Army boys also in the car. We gather into a group pose, and when the photo op ends, George sits at our booth and says, “He didn’t even acknowledge the girls.”
June 3rd—I have more time in a day than I have ever had. Whole hours are spent watching trees and grass. Siberian taiga is a riot of tall conifer and loose bark birch, miles of track going over swamp. Perhaps it is not a swamp, but thaw. Loosening ice churning mud into a porridge mixture that sucks at heels. On the leeward side of rail tracks, where shadow is perpetual, ice remains. Dried reed grass is imprisoned. The sun appears to be a remarkable distance away. Not a meridian sun, which is swollen and hot and whose pale yellow enriches half the sky. This sun is a dot. The horizon is alighted so far from apogee and beam that it is blanched like bone.
“Russian is beautiful,” I say to Nic.
Nic is passive. His inaction is a physical silence. He will read a page, close his book, stare out the window, reopen the book, gander across another page, look up, stare for an hour.
I nod to his book. “Dostoevsky?” I ask.
He chuckles. “Net.”
I listen to audiobooks, read, and write. I write too specific at times, and too much. The words are twins of those I’ve used before, the scenarios similar. Having never had a string of days to write without distraction, I find myself bumping against the limits of my vocabulary and the selfsame nature of travelogue.
Great writers are likely found in the quality of their memory rather than their notes. It takes me half a day to capture that episode with Nic. Proust must have had two lifetimes: the second to transcribe the first. Artists with incurable hedonism and short, august lives must live as they do knowing it is a life divided. A life truncated to ease its capture. There is too much to transcribe otherwise.
Nic watches me as I write. He points to my journal. “Dostoevsky?”
We both laugh. I offer him candy, and he offers some of his own.
Even with the surplus of time, it ends. Four days is not as long as I think. We shed hours as we come nearer to Moscow. One hour one day. Two the next. A body adjusted to wanting sleep at midnight suddenly desires sleep at nine. I don’t sleep through the night, yet exhaustion hardly lasted. I nap often during the day. One moment eyes closed under the sun, the next open as we pass underneath a thunderstorm whose thick rain thrums the metal roof.
June 4th—I develop a ferocious cold one day from Moscow. Every swallow is a pain. It was inevitable: this close to people, cramped environs, Nic’s odor. My diet doesn’t help as it makes my thirst inexhaustible. Cheese, sausage, pickles, and sodium heavy soups have me returning again and again to the one water source—the samovar with its inexhaustible supply of boiling water. I eat few vegetables and get what I can from the locals who set up stalls at each major platform. Some are better stocked than others. Most sell processed foods. Those that don’t bring homemade items. Dumplings filled with potatoes and cabbage, borschts soups in plastic containers, rotisserie chickens dropped in plastic bags. I try all.
Nic has a single type of meal the entire trip: a coil of sausage, a loaf of stale bread, and a block of cheese. He dresses this hors d’oeuvre with mayonnaise he pipes from a tube. Each bite is taken after pushing it to the back rear of his mouth.
June 5th—Once we are inside Moscow’s area, we exchange the double, endless track of open Russia for the many crisscrossing tracks of the city. Trains at stations are stacked aside one another like books in a bargain bin. Stations cease to be remote and adorned outposts. They are now concrete slabs where commuters wait for the quick, light rail trains that serve the single utilitarian purpose of movement.
At 2:15pm we arrive in Moscow. I am very sick now. The nursing students find and help me out. I’m feverish in movement. We say a fast goodbye and are lost to each other in Moscow’s grandiose subway. I take a line, unsure of the exact direction. At my presumed stop, I exit and ascend an escalator upwards that extends as high a mining shaft. Upon exiting, I find that Moscow’s stone sidewalks are coated with a sheet of hailstones. Without an umbrella, I arrive at the hostel soaked and chilled.