What I remember most is the heat on my skin and the sun shining through a thin curtain hung over the window. I didn’t know if the window faced east or west since I couldn’t remember if it was morning or afternoon. When the time of day still mattered to me — yesterday? — I had been on the other side of the planet. How long had it been since I slept? I wasn’t sure. The warmth of the room wrapped around me lovingly, almost too warm.
Voices speaking another language embraced me. The unknown words were comforting, yet a small part of me chafed at their alienness.
A folding table was set out in front of the couch. It was a comfortable couch, firm and angular and bright red. The table was covered in a yellow checkered cloth that dazzled me in the golden sunlight. Whenever I tried to get off the couch to help put things on the tablecloth, someone gently pushed me down and went to the kitchen themselves. They brought back little platters of crisp biscuits, candies, and syrupy pineapple cake. They placed a blueberry tart on the table beside the cups and a teapot and little plates with forks. Chairs were dragged in and I sat on the edge of the crowded couch, snug as a dish on the table.
There were five of us dining.
Though I didn’t really like tea, I took my cup and held it in my hands to make way for the yummy things nearly tipping off the edge. The cup was hot, like summer and this room. Now the whole apartment smelled like green tea leaves. I could feel the moist scent in my nose and mouth, mixing with the heat, and my whole body felt soothed. Should I sweat? Should I sleep? No, I should eat.
Already my companions had begun offering me slices of cake and tart with a side of sugary treats. For the cake I used a fork, but the tart slice proved to be finger food. It was more like a giant, soft cookie smeared with blueberry jam and made to look like a lattice-topped pie. I ate as much as I could while still looking polite.
I hardly spoke. I barely could. It was easier to eat and sip and listen.
To my right, perched on the edge of the couch, was my dear friend Katya. She was so beautiful in the sunshine with her dark hair and delicate features. I loved watching her get up, sit down, and pick out things to eat while conversing with her family. Had it been a whole year since I last saw her? It felt like she should always be by my side. It felt like she had never left, even though I was the new arrival now.
Just hours ago, I had arrived in the Moscow airport, tired and relieved, only to discover my suitcase was missing. The baggage claim was oddly quiet, a vast white cavern of conveyor belts. Taking a deep breath, I went to the service counter and arranged for my misplaced bag to be delivered to…where? I said I didn’t know. I said my guide should be somewhere out in the lobby waiting for me. She would know! The service counter ladies didn’t smile, but they made a call. Somewhere beyond the baggage claim, announcements echoed.
After a few minutes of waiting with my remaining bags, an invisible door in the wall opened. Out stepped a security officer and Katya, who looked terrified. I couldn’t help myself and called out her name. “Katya!” She looked over in surprise and smiled. We ran to each other, for a moment forgetting everyone as we embraced. Grinning, we returned to the counter and Katya provided an address for the bag to be shipped to.
After driving to Chicago, flying across the Atlantic Ocean, running through Helsinki Airport, taking a tiny plane over the border, and touching down in Moscow, I had finally made it to Katya’s home country after a year apart. We walked arm in arm out of the baggage claim, emerging into the front lobby full of meandering travelers. Katya told me that she had been shocked when her name was called over the announcements and how she had been led away, leaving her escort to wonder what happened to her. We quickly found him: Zhenya, husband of Katya’s cousin, Marina. He was extremely relieved to see us and snatched up my bags as he led the way to the train terminal.
The hot Russian air felt good on my skin after so many hours in climate-controlled planes and airports. A comfortable modern train took us into the center of Moscow, where we walked past a huge station and crossed a public square to catch a clunkier train headed to the suburbs. The cityscape melted into trees and towering clusters of apartment buildings. Zhenya led the way, getting off at a simple concrete platform and crossing over the tracks to reach the road on the other side. We passed more apartments, a few houses, and a corner store where Zhenya stopped to buy me a toothbrush to replace the lost one. Then we climbed into the tiny elevator of a building flanked by two identical ones and rode to the sixteenth floor.
Katya’s cousin Marina was very pretty, with dark hair and a heart-shaped face. She was not alone in the apartment; another cousin named Alina had come to join us. While Marina was older and worked in the city, Alina was just fifteen, slender and elfin. The three cousins looked completely different, yet their warmth and pretty faces made it clear they were related.
Zhenya stashed my bags in a corner of the living room while I was shown around by the ladies. Inside the front door was an entryway connecting everything. I could see into the living room, but we went into the bathroom first. It had a tub, a faucet that swiveled between it and the sink, and a toilet tucked up against the washing machine. Marina showed me her square kitchen: there was a little table and a balcony for her plants. It overlooked the playground far below and the landscape of buildings sprouting out of the forest. Katya pointed to a pond we could walk by. Finally, we gathered in the living room. It was bare save for a large couch and a TV cabinet with closet doors hiding the couple’s clothes.
I didn’t speak any Russian. I didn’t really know anything about the culture. Before leaving home, my father took me aside and told me two things. First, he said he was proud of me for traveling somewhere that had, in his youth, been off limits. And second, he warned I should not accept alcohol from anyone, especially not ouzo or vodka. Would someone really give a seventeen-year-old vodka? I didn’t know. However, after a couple of hours in the country, I felt certain that tea was the preferred national beverage.
Seated in the June heat with a steaming cup and a plate of goodies, I cast aside all doubt as Katya’s elbow bumped mine. Now and then she translated what everyone was joking about or asked me to talk about my journey. In a few days we would go on one together, taking a train six hundred miles south to Katya’s hometown, but that trip felt far away. Even nighttime seemed a million miles off.
Did some more friends join us? Everyone wants to have tea.
Drifting in and out of thought, I listened to the calm, deep way the men spoke mixed with the excitable voices of the women, and their conversation flowed over me like music. Happily seated in the audience, I basked.
Erika Worley is passionate about escaping to other worlds, resulting in an extensive home library as well as a well-traveled passport. She lives with her husband Marshall in a house by the creek. By day she works, by night she writes, and on weekends she teaches Japanese to local children. Follow her @erikabrickley