By Marcia DeSanctis
The first time I met Maria Konstantinovna, she was wearing a knee-length black leather skirt. It was Italian, brand new. And it was mine.
Masha, as I would come to know her, was a dejournaya, in Moscow. Women like her sat on every floor, in every hotel, in the Soviet Union. They performed a range of duties – they served tea from a samovar that simmered behind their station. They ordered your phone call to America and came to wake you if it ever went through. They even washed lingerie and tee-shirts, leaving the latter folded like fine envelopes, whiter than they ever deserved to be. They also handed out your room key with varying degrees of suspicion, charm or ennui, and if you wanted to leave it for safekeeping, collected it when you left the floor. But allegedly, the real purpose of these hall monitors was to observe your comings and goings on behalf of the security apparatus of the Kremlin.
It was my second trip to Cold War Moscow.
One year earlier, I had a new degree in Russian Studies, and stayed in an old hotel in the center of town. On nights when I drank too much Georgian champagne, I crossed the street and walked alone past the cupolas and red brick walls of Red Square. Now I was back as a tour guide of sorts, a liaison, for groups of doctors who were on continuing education junkets. I was a translator, a babysitter, holder of boarding passes and whipping post if need be when tempers grew hot travelling around the Soviet Empire, which they often did. It was part of my job description to be cheerful, but when we finally arrived at our hulking mass of a hotel, I despaired. It was far from the center of town – far from anywhere I knew or wanted to be.
Our official Inturist guide told us it had been built in 1979 to house guests and athletes for the Olympics the following year. That much was obvious. It was a model Soviet vanity project, from the monstrous scale to the banners out front which erupted with optimism: “Onward!”. Inside, it was as sprawling and noisy as a city and the air was dense with cigarette smoke and the grease from several restaurants.
Prior to my trip, a colleague and fellow tour guide had informed me that there were fiber-optic cables installed in every room, and that an entire floor was devoted to surveillance. He claimed to have stumbled upon a wall of reel-to-reel tape recorders. President Reagan had just given his Evil Empire speech, and the country was being run by an ex-KGB chief, Yuri Andropov. Paranoia was everywhere – in bars or on park benches changing black market dollars. They assumed, as well, that we were listening to them.
As my job paid little and I would depend on tips, I was eager to prove myself. But the first morning I woke up with a foggy head and aching limbs. So with apologies for being sick on the first day of my new job, I loaded my fourteen gastroenterologists and their spouses onto the coach with their Russian guide, and repaired upstairs, hungry for my bed. I peeled my clothes off and crawled in naked. The sheets were coarse cotton and delightfully crunchy, and the duvet still held a welcoming hint of my own body warmth.
I woke up to the sight of two men going through my suitcase at the foot of the bed. One man’s arm was buried in a zipper compartment. Another, younger man was turned towards the window, holding my raincoat up to the light.
“What are you doing?” I asked. Russian literature was full of fever dreams, and I believed I was having one. It seemed hallucinatory, but the clarity was dazzling – two guys, blue shirts, one with a pale smoker’s complexion and hair all neat like a little boy on school picture day. The younger one had gray eyes that, for a second, flashed with menace, as if I was the one intruding.
Startled, he dropped the raincoat into the suitcase.
I was shivering and drew the comforter tightly around my bare body, like a sleeping bag.
“Excuse me,” the older man declared as they hastened to the door. “We thought you were out.”
The next day, I did not speak of my sickbed visit. Many in the group already supposed they were being watched; some were amused and some were downright nervous at the perceived Cold War cloak-and-dagger. But while they toured Lenin’s tomb, I sat on the bus, sweating, too sick to move. When they returned, my charges insisted on taking me back to the hotel.
I dragged myself through the lobby, into the elevator, down the hallway that was thick with the rotten-fruit smell of disinfectant. My feet carried me, quicker now, to my room, to that delicious, warm bed. The dejournaya station was empty. I had wordlessly passed her that morning, not stopping to leave my key. She had glanced up from her book and smiled, which was unusual for a key lady, and I had noticed her wide-set green eyes.
And there she was, inside my room. She was curvier than I, and my skirt’s high waist band stretched tightly around her middle, pulling across her hips sexily, as if the utterly random act of wearing a stranger’s clothes gave her an air of danger and power. She held a pair of black high heels that I had packed along with the skirt, knowing I would never wear them on my tour of Moscow and Central Asia. They were new, expensive, and I did not want to leave them in the closet of my shared New York apartment. Her own white satin blouse was unbuttoned; the frayed remains of lacy trim drifted around the cups of her bra. It was at least a size too small, pinching her ribcage and crushing her breasts.
“Bozhe moi,” she said. “Oh, my God.”
“It’s okay, really,” I said. “I just need to sleep.”
“Just a moment,” she said. One at a time, with two hands, she bent to place my shoes on the floor, toes pointed straight ahead, like loaves on a baking sheet.
“Just a moment,” she repeated, clumsily unzipping my leather skirt. I turned my head so as not to see her Soviet-issue panties, hoping at least she wore some. She nodded solicitously, deferentially, her young face creased with shame. In what seemed like one move, she slipped on her wool skirt and stepped into her shoes. Then she shuffled her breasts around as if to find room in her bra, and fastened her blouse.
I waved her out the door, saying, “Don’t worry, don’t worry. Please!”
I scanned the room, flipped through my suitcase. Only my make-up case looked disturbed, with pencils, brushes and compacts strewn about the dresser. Then I fell fully clothed onto the bed.
When I awoke, she was sitting at her station and rose to greet me when I came down the hall. She seemed taller, and more beautiful, having regained her composure, and must have been twenty-five or twenty-six, a few years older than I.
“Do you want tea?” she asked.
“Yes, please,” I answered. “What’s your name?”
“Maria Konstantinovna,” she replied. “Masha.”
“I’m Marcia too,” I said. In Russian, they sounded the same. “Is there anything to eat?”
She walked me back to my room, where I changed into a nightgown and slipped back into bed. Soon, she reappeared with rolls, cheese and black tea. All day long, I drifted in and out of sleep. At times, I could hear the door swish open and closed. Once I sat up to sip some tea, and felt Masha’s hands bolster my shoulders as I lowered myself onto the mattress.
The shades were drawn. There was still daylight behind them, but I had no idea what time it was. “I’m not working tomorrow,” said Masha. I looked at her, puzzled. “I think you will be well enough to leave for Tashkent.”
I had not mentioned my itinerary to her. “Thanks to you, I will be,” I said.
Loud voices erupted in the corridor and Masha stood to return to her station. Before she left, she refilled my glass, one last time. The tea was dark and thick.
“I’ll be back in a few weeks,” I said. “May I bring you something from America?”
She pressed her finger on the starched napkin that rested between the tea glass and saucer, and held it there, firmly, until her eyes caught mine. A corner of a folded square of paper stuck out, just visible, from underneath the napkin. Later, I slipped the note out and it tucked into my wallet.
Within a month, I returned with another group of doctors, this time seventeen thoracic surgeons. At the airport, an agent had confiscated Time and Newsweek, and a few fashion magazines I added to the pile, just because. But I still had the illustrated collection of Pushkin fairytales Masha had requested, she wrote, to read to her young son. At the Russian bookstore in New York City, I had easily procured what was impossible to find in the shortage-ravaged Soviet Union. Of course, I brought a few extra things – a leather handbag stuffed with lip gloss, eye shadow, and licorice – it looked like a care package to a college student. And two bras wrapped in powder blue tissue, not fancy, but new and whole. I guessed her size, as if it even mattered. The scene had never left my mind - her open shirt, the tattered lingerie and her eyes that avoided mine until she gleaned something, in a moment of convergence and comprehension: Had our fates been reversed, Iwould have discovered the Italian skirt from the depths of her luggage. And I would have slipped it on as she had done, to see my reflection just once in something beautiful.
Right after checking in, I hopped the elevator to my old floor and asked the duty dejournaya for Maria Konstantinovna.
“She left,” the woman answered, yawning.
“For the day, or for good?” I asked.
“She doesn’t work here,” she said, and turned to rearrange her keys, inviting no further questions.
Over the next six months, I returned to the hotel several times, but never saw Masha again. In the winter of 1986, I was back in Moscow, this time with an American television network. Change was afoot, Mikhail Gorbachev was in power, and glasnost was the order of the day. I was installed at fancier digs in a prime location, in a hotel swarming with journalists, Swedish businessmen and Delta flight crews. I was low-man on the nightly newscast I worked for, but in those days, it still meant I had a car and driver. Snow fell gently, unstoppably, on the black Volga sedan. My old hotel seemed closer to town than I remembered.
Rounding the circular drive, I recalled a brief embrace Masha and I had shared at the end of the one day we knew each other. I had recognized her perfume – Amazone – because it had come from my own bottle. It seemed a fool’s errand to seek her out two years later, but I was desperate to find her. In a way, she was my only friend in town, and I had her book.
Needless to say, she wasn’t there.