by Kevin McCaughey
A writer’s moments with a very different Natasha.
Natashas have always seemed long to me. Long-haired, long-legged, comfy at great heights, like in an expensive revolving restaurant.
Which is funny, because I never met a Natasha like that. But, if I ever saw a Russian girl like that, I’d think she would be a Natasha.
My Natasha wasn’t that type at all. She wasn’t even really mine.
She was a teacher I worked with at a language school in Moldova, from 1997 to 1999. She was in her mid-twenties, blonde with straight bangs, and little make-up, at once wittier, smarter, and more down to earth than you’d expect from along Natasha. She spoke perfect BBC English. I was always comfy with her, a way I didn’t feel with the girls I wanted to love or go to bed with.
For instance, once on a teacher getaway to neighboring Odessa, in the evening, Natasha and I ended up on the rusted dock, looking at the lights of cargo ships reflected shimmeringly in the oily black water. Natasha rested her head in my lap. That was it.
Conversely, taking advantage of the moment, two other teachers had such thunderous sex back at the sanatorium where we were staying as to rouse the sleeping bear of a desk woman and bring her stomping through the hallways.
I knew that Natasha would be good for me, which made me wonder why I didn’t love her. Or if I did, why I didn’t do anything. Why did Natasha and I pass each other like old cargo ships on oily water?
Recently, I was still thinking about it. I went to The Love Calculator, a web device where you can type two names into a box and instantly receive your odds of relationship success. Sure enough, Natasha and I scored an 87%. I was less successful with actual Moldovan or Russian girlfriends of my past: Lena (18%), Anyuta (12%), and Tanya (16%). How could I be such a bad judge? I would have been happier with Ghengis Khan (74%), Lizzie Borden (49%), or Secretariat (63%).
But my story with Natasha really goes back to the first days of this century. When we met in another country. When we made animals from our hands and pillows. When Natasha told me the story.
Natasha’s family left Moldova for Israel in 1999. I, having taken a six-month sabbatical from Moldova, was set to return.
On the last night of the 20th century, I flew from Budapest to Tel Aviv, on a flight with only a handful of passengers. Y2K was due in just a few hours.
I landed in one piece, and that evening, I lay my head on Natasha’s lap on a park bench in Jaffa.
We returned to the family flat for festivities. They—Natasha’s mom and Dad, her sister and a boyfriend—sat around a table accoutered with Russian dishes and Moldavian champagne. We watched the surprise resignation of Boris Yeltsin, and the ascension of a young balding Vladimir Putin, and then a long parade of lip-syncing pop stars.
The next day, we traveled to Jerusalem, and shared a bed in hostel. But nothing happened. From there, we rode a bus south, stopping for refreshments at the Dead Sea, a beach no sandier than a little league infield. Germans floated on their backs, high in the grey water and said, “Look at me!” Natasha and I didn’t have suits. I dipped my hand in the greasy water.
We continued by bus that day to the end of the Israel, the town of Eilat, wedged against Jordan, Egypt and the tip of the Red Sea.
We ate dinner looking at the sea—which wasn’t red—and eastward at the treeless mountains which turned orangey at sunset. That was Jordan over there, and ancient Petra was our goal.
We rented a ground-floor room in a guesthouse house, and in the morning took a taxi to the border. There was a mild wind. No people or lines. Just some sentry-like kiosks in the desert, and beyond them, the land sloping up to those red hills. We gave our identification to an Israeli guard, a woman.
“Is this all you have?” she asked Natasha.
Natasha had her Israeli residency card. She’d left her Soviet and Moldavian passports in Tel Aviv.
“You can go,” the guard said to me, “but she can’t.”
Natasha urged me to go on. She would wait in Eilat. Natasha sat down again once of the palms planted to liven thus rocky patch of desert. She started to cry.
“It’s okay,” I said.
A few drops of rain fell. Only years later, having lived a year on the Jordanian side, would I realize how extraordinary and event was rain.
Nor did I realize that I was sick, very sick.
By the time a taxi returned us to our guesthouse—some thirty minutes—everything hurt. My head hurt. My throat. My legs.
I fell into bed. It was my legs that bother me the most.
“Are you okay?”
“My legs hurt,” I said.
I slept of most of two days, though occasionally I was awake, a little delirious, and I reminded Natasha that my legs hurt. Which was true.
On the evening of the second day she came back and climbed onto the bed next to me.
“Are you okay?”
“My legs hurt.” I said.
“Should I find a doctor?”
“I’m too tired to see a doctor.”
“What can I do?”
“Tell me a skazka?” I said, a fairy tale.
Natasha lay on her elbows her face not far from mine, looking down into the blankets. She almost always spoke British, but now she spoke in soft Russian:
When the man was in a vertical position, his legs started to hurt. And that’s how he lived, near the Red Sea. He wanted to catch fish, and he wanted someone to wait for him on the shore. But it was difficult to catch fish, because his legs hurt.And then one morning he got up very early. He wanted to go to Jordan. He got up, put on his clothes, and even brushed his teeth, which was a very rare thing for him.
But he did not make it to Jordan, because he wasn’t alone. It was raining and they arrived at the border, and there they found a mean witch with a gun in her hand. The witch looked him over, in such a state as he was in, with his legs hurting, and such a girl with him. “You are not allowed into Jordan,” she said.
He cried. He sat under a palm tree. He was sad for a long, long time.
The girl laughed for some time, because, probably, she was sick too.
Then they took a taxi and went back to the room, a small room, very cozy. There were two beds. And he wanted to sleep again. Because his legs hurt a lot. He lay down and slept a long, long time because his legs hurt.
Then the girl didn’t know what to do. She went outside, thought about going for a walk. But how could she go for a walk when her friend’s legs hurt?
She decided to go to bed. They went to sleep.
Then they got up. Sitting was difficult, but they didn’t want to lie down. There was nowhere to go. It was raining. They got up and left because they knew that in a few hours they would have to sleep again.
They didn’t walk far because the man’s legs hurt a lot. They sat on a bench and looked at the sea.
“I’m going back to the room because my legs hurt.”
He went back. She stayed by herself and looked at the red mountains, and thought maybe that was why this was the Red Sea.
In the small room the man lay, reading a book about people who didn’t like to lie down all the time, and whose legs didn’t hurt. They had climbed Everest, but they couldn’t get back down. They were caught by a storm.
She said they were very brave, but he said, no, they were a little crazy probably. But he thought everyone whose legs didn’t hurt was crazy.
They didn’t have anything to do, and didn’t have anywhere to go, so they turned off the lights and lay down. The girl didn’t want to sleep. But she didn’t have anywhere to go. He asked her to tell him a story. So she started to tell a story about how, once upon a time, there lived a man whose legs always hurt.
That night I felt better and the light from the patio outside threw shadows of our heads against the white wall above the bed.
I raised one hand, and made the shadow of a dog’s head against the wall, lowering and raising my pinky to make him bark.
And then we made other animals. Whatever animal we called out—we made, having no idea if it was possible—and, quite unbelievably, we were succeeding. We used our hands together to make a shark, an elephant, a rabbit. Pillows and the desk lamp made a perfect camel. A scarf helped us make a Cornish game hen.
It was an hour in bed with a girl in which everything was possible.
The next day we went to the border crossing with Egypt. But they said that Natasha couldn’t come in.
“You go on,” she said. “I’ll wait here.”
“No,” I said. “It’s kind of a tradition for us.”
We had been brought to the room near the Red Sea, by fate and illness. How could we lie in that small room for days and not make love, but tell stories and make animals from shadows, something neither of us had ever done before?
Natasha saw me off at Ben Gurion airport three days later, taking me there by bus. She was wearing a reddish plaid skirt with black nylons.
“You’re wearing a skirt,” I said.
Getting a skirt by me unnoticed is like getting an open wound by a shark.
“It’s very rare for me,” she said.
“It’s new. Not one of the four.”
In the years we worked together at the language school, I numbered her skirts. She had four. And I’d say, “Oh, you’re wearing Number Four today, my favorite.”
And she’d say, “No, this is Two. And your favorite is Three.”
On the curb in front of airport we kissed good-bye there. It was our first time. Her eyes were wet.
I headed off, and kept turning to see her, outside in the shadow under the awning, until I was swallowed into the net of airport security. I left her there, boxed into her new little country, a Russian girl from Moldova learning Hebrew with a British accent.
Kevin McCaughey is an English Language teacher and trainer. Travel writing, fiction, and poetry by Kevin have appeared in twenty journals, including Manoa, Hawaii Review, and Beloit Fiction Journal. McCaughey won the Love Story Gold for the best account of love or romance on the road with “Shadow Animals” in the Fourth Annual Solas Awards.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.