Walking through Tsaritsyno Park on the outskirts of Moscow, my guide and I came to the end of a forest path. There before us: a perfect semi-circle of baby-blue porta-potties. The path went left and the path went right.
»It is like a Russian fairytale,« I was told. »If you go left, your legs will be chopped off. If you go right, you die some other way. Maybe better, maybe not so much. In Russia, the only safe way is backwards.«
»Unless you have to use the toilet,« I said.
»Is also a trap,« my guide shrugged.
The next day three Moscow metro cars derailed between stations, killing dozens of rush-hour commuters. Some days later a hellmouth opened in Siberia. (Really. Look it up.) A week or so after that a Malaysian airplane was shot down from the sky. I’d been in Moscow for only a few weeks and for no good reason. It was too expensive to eat so I started smoking again. Smoking, I decided, was a safe way back. But to what?
I am here because someone I love is here.
One night she smelled something. She didn’t want to believe that it was smoke because if it was smoke, wouldn’t there be a siren of some sort, an alarm? The building would be on fire if it was smoke and we would be in danger. Therefore it could not be smoke. Perhaps smoke smells different in Russian.
(The Russian alphabet looks exactly like the Roman alphabet when you’re too drunk to read. There is something comforting in this. The world returned to a toddler-like zone where anything can kill you but you don’t have to really worry about it: you can’t read yet. Let those who can read worry about it.)
»Uh,« I said. »I think we should get out of the building.«
We’re on the fourteenth floor. I stepped into the hallway, which smelled of sickly, burning plastic. Not like a burning dinner, more like a burning refrigerator.
»If it was a fire,« she said, »there’d be an alarm by now.«
So we watched TV as our apartment slowly filled with smoke.
Twenty minutes later, a phone call alerted us to the fire trucks outside our building. Five or six of them. Outside, we found the firemen arguing, pointing. They’d driven all the way there with the flashing lights and the 1970s trucks – maybe they’d driven here from the actual seventies and this accounted for their confusion? – and some of them were wearing awesome protective boots; wasn’t that enough? Did they have to go up and put the fire out? They stood around smoking. I joined them. There was smoke coming from a flat on the sixteenth floor, and there was no smoke alarm in the building, so half the apartments on the lower levels of the building were lit up, dreamlike; Russian people inside oblivious that the top half of the building was ablaze. Nobody made any effort to tell them.
Finally, the firemen made their sad, processional way up the 16 flights of stairs. After an hour, the smoke died. Then some guy ran out of the building; a bunch of others ran back in. Now they were moving quickly? Did someone find a crate of vodka? Ten minutes later they come out with a human shaped thing wrapped in tin foil. I saw a head: it was burned, blackened. One foot poked out from the metallic blanket, crayon-red and raw.
Next morning a cheery woman told us that she was happy he had finally burned himself to death! No more worry! He was a hoarder, apparently, and mentally ill, a drunk just back again from the drunk hospital. They probably didn’t find him right away because his belongings had collapsed onto him. Like capitalism, da?
Russians have a very healthy attitude toward death but a very dangerous attitude toward fire safety and prevention. There’s probably no way to reconcile the two unless you’re the fire. Or on fire. Because when you’re on fire it doesn’t matter whether you go left or right or backwards. Kind of like my stay in Moscow. It just needs to run its course.
First published in: South as a State of Mind (issue #5), 2015.