Today - my birthday - was a day for watching Game of Thrones and working on my memoir. Later, I may even eat a piece of cake. In recognition of those important activities, and the unfortunate result that I was too busy with them to write for this blog, I decided to post a brief excerpt from my memoir-in-progress.
To set the scene, it is a Monday evening in Moscow; late April. I've just returned from a long weekend in Paris with my kids only to learn from my wife that there's something terribly wrong at work - security goons have been calling her all day trying to find me. I suspect I know what it is - that I've been caught - but feel compelled to go in to find out. I leave home and drive the short distance to work, hoping that the office will be empty so that I can find out what I need to know.
As I walk warily through the evening mist toward the front entrance my car fades into the distance behind me like a diminishing point of refuge. I resist the urge to turn back. Through the glass window I see the lone night guard sitting at his post, a pudgy, abdominous man engrossed in whatever schlock he happens to be watching this evening. I know this man. He is uncharacteristically friendly for a guard – a content family man who admits to his love for his wife and children. Friendly or not, he is my first test, the border I must try to cross. If my worst fears are true, if the word has gone out, and there’s no reason to think that it has not, than he could very well be the last friendly face I ever see. I walk through the door.
“Privet, Pavel” I call to him as I approach. My voice sounds weak and shaky in my ears, nearly drowned out by the screams and explosions coming from his computer.
He raises his eyes and smiles. This is a good sign. I focus on him, readying to turn and run if I sense any untoward movement. Suddenly, his left hand moves. A jolt, like an electric shock, passes through me. I prepare to bolt. Before I do, I realize with a sigh of relief that he’s putting his movie on pause.
“Oh, I’ve been better,” I say.
Pavel frowns and leans back, apparently readying himself to divulge some friendly advice or listen with a sympathetic ear. “You work too much,” he says. “I don’t know how you do it. You should be home with the family.”
I pounce upon this ‘out’ he so graciously provides. “Yeah, that’s it. They called me in and now it’s time to slave away. Better get to it if I have any hope of getting home tonight.”
“Schastlivo,” Pavel says. Good luck. I’m going to need it. He turns back to his screen. I swipe my card at the turnstile and it swings open. As I walk toward the stairs, the screams resume.
Out of habit I reach for the button to the elevator but quickly withdraw my hand. Call it an overabundance of paranoia, but it could be a trap: I envision the doors opening on the third floor to a row of Kali-toting guards. Instead, I turn left, pass the closed door where the KGB security goons bide their time, and mount the concrete steps. At the top, I slowly open the fire door and peer through the crack. The familiar grimy corridor, like that of an insane asylum or hospital that has seen better days, stretches out before me, lit for the evening with alternate banks of fluorescent lights. Faded gray carpet leads off to some distant point. As I’d hoped – prayed - the hallway’s empty, the long row of brown wood office doors closed. I sigh, step into the hall. Everyone went home long ago, I think to myself, in an effort to calm my pattering heart. I get a belated jolt of religion. “Thank you God,” I mumble as I walk down the hall toward my door, readying the key.
I walk into my cell-like office, flip the switch. I squint into the sudden light, catching my reflection in the mirror at the rear behind my desk. Even in that distorted, opaque image I see that I’ve looked better: my hair’s a mess and my pale skin glows a pallid, ghostly yellow. Disgust rises up in me at the sight of this pathetic spectacle. I have to rid myself of this reminder of my transgressions. I quickly switch off the overhead light, step into the room. The door closes behind me with a muffled thump. A beam of weak, diffuse light shines feebly through the window from an outside streetlamp, leaving the room in dark shadow. I stumble forward, bang my thigh harshly on the corner of the desk. I wince and sink down into chair while flipping the lid of my laptop.
I grab the mouse and open my e-mails, holding my breath in nervous anticipation. The antiquated, overtaxed computer begins to hum. Several seconds later Outlook opens, revealing hundreds of unopened messages. With a sinking heart, I see that the subject lines are frantic, many written in capital letters. I click on a random message, this one from another lawyer in my department.
“Leigh, what the hell is going on? We need to talk IMMEDIATELY. Ollie’s making threats. I don’t understand any of this.”
I click on another, this one from Pug. In his inimitable style, he has selectively capitalized various swearwords.
“Where the FUCK are you? Called 100 times. Get your FUCKING ASS in here. I don’t know what you did but if you did what I think you did than you are a FUCKING dead man. Meeting with Ollie in 30 minutes. He is FUCKING PISSED. I hope to FUCKING GOD that you can clear this up.”
I scroll quickly through the remainder. More of the same. E-mails from the auditors, e-mails from the bank, e-mails from every minion in the joint, all with one basic message: What the fuck did you do?
I sit back, take a shuddering gasp, suddenly realizing that I’ve been holding my breath. Sweat pours down my forehead, into my eyes. My hands shake on the keyboard. My worst fears are now confirmed. But how did I get past the guard? Where is everybody? Is this a trap? I jump from my desk, glance about my office. It is, to put it mildly, a mess. Incriminating documents are strewn everywhere. I’m one messy, irresponsible thief. A strange thought flits through my mind: am I getting my wish? Did I possibly want to be caught? Perish the thought. Now that the cat’s out of the bag what I want is to escape. The fight-or-flight instinct kicks into overdrive. I grab piles of documents, mash them into my backpack.
At that moment there is a loud knock at the door. I freeze, my hand in the air holding a fistful of documents. Another knock. My jaw drops: the whole door vibrates as if whoever is on the other side intends to knock it down. I wonder to myself whether, in my panic, I even locked the door. I run behind my desk, crouch, like a burglar caught in the act, waiting for the door to open. I hold my breath, wait. And wait. And wait. The silence is deafening, punctuated only by the frantic tick-tock of my heart. No more knocks. I slowly right myself and begin, once again, to gather documents.
Five minutes pass. I’m almost done. My bag bulges with paper. I scan the room one last time. A ping of regret courses through me; I will never see this place again. To my surprise, I am sad. It’s not, I realize, because this is the indisputable end of my failed experiment, but the circumstanced under which I’m departing. An ignominious end to my Russia experiment if there ever was one. But even this departure from Ollie’s grasping arms is better than no escape at all. Enough reminiscing for the moment; I’m not even close to home free. Back to the matter at hand: Have I managed to gather everything? Almost decidedly not, but something is better than nothing.
[TO BE CONTINUED]