In June 1987 my parents and I left Moscow for good and flew to Vienna, where we stayed for ten days in a refugee hostel. The emigration numbers were just beginning to pick up after seven years of a dead low, and we were still a feeble creek compared to the torrents of the 1970s. After Vienna we went by train to Rome, where we spent a week, before moving to the town of Ladispoli. About twenty-five miles up the Tyrrhenian coast, Ladispoli was an unglamorous beach resort where middle-class Romans owned weekend homes. There the Soviet refugees would rent rooms and wait for their visas to be processed. Ladispoli’s seedy Tyrrhenian beach with its fine black sand was our refugee parlor, library, and newsroom. Ready for a new life in America, my parents and I were thrust into two months of involuntary, anxious restfulness.
I was a twenty-year-old poet, something of a cross between a knight who puts his Beautiful Ladies on an unearthly pedestal and a tomcat who undresses women with his slinky gaze. At the time I didn’t need prescription glasses. My entire beach wardrobe consisted of three T-shirts and a pair of faded cut-offs. I despised suntan lotion and at the beach wore what my American wife calls a “sack o’ marbles” bathing suit. I was very skinny, partly from a healing duodenal ulcer and partly from what was then an all-incinerating metabolism, and my abdomen still carried the remains of a “six-pack” that I had developed the summer before during a two-month expedition to the south of Russia and the Caucasus. That summer in Ladispoli was the only time in my life when I completely surrendered to destiny. There was nothing I could do to speed up the workings of the American consulate. I had but the faintest idea of where we were going in America. I knew that once in America I would try to transfer to a university—but that’s about all I knew.
Soon after moving to Ladispoli I met at the beach and befriended a group of Italians my age. Several of them lived in Ladispoli, others were from Rome and grew up spending summers by the beach. Meeting them was pure luck for me. They adopted me, those Italian students. Despite a shortage of spending money (about a dollar a day was my budget), I never felt like a poor refugee among them. My rescuers congregated at night in a seaside café with red chairs designed for very skinny people. To that group of gli studenti belonged Rafaella S., whom the Italians, men especially, called “Sarda” behind her back. In their attitude toward Rafaella I sensed admiration for her strikingly good looks, an admiration that was laced with prejudice. Rafaella’s family had moved from Sardinia when she was eight, and she’d grown up in Ladispoli. Yet even to me, a Soviet refugee uninitiated in the nuances of Italian national identity, Rafaella seemed different—in appearance, in temperament, in style. She stood out from that bunch of Italian friends.
Rafaella’s parents owned a flower shop on Ladispoli’s main commercial street, which ran from the train station to the sea. She had a younger sister, still in high school, and also an older one, who was married to a navy man and living near Brindisi. Rafaella was studying psychology at Urbino, and for the summer she was back home working at the family shop. Her family lived a couple of kilometers west of Ladispoli’s central quarter; they grew most of the flowers they sold at the shop. Although I knew her for about two of the two and a half months we stayed in Ladispoli, I was never introduced to her family and only saw them through the windows of the shop as I passed it on the way to and from the train station. Like Rafaella herself, her father, mother, and younger sister had dark complexions and expressive, dolorous faces. Once, and this was after we started dating, I broke a promise to Rafaella and went inside her flower shop to say hello. It was a late morning in July, and I rode from the beach on an old beat-up bicycle, a trusty old Velossinante to assist me on quixotic immigrant pursuits. I was taking a chance. Luckily, her younger sister wasn’t there; Rafaella’s father must still have been out making morning deliveries, and her mother was fussing over a flower arrangement in the back of the store. I swaggered in, pretending never to have met Rafaella, and asked for a red rose. A tall one, I indicated with the span of my arms, knowing by the furious flashing of her eyes that she had no choice but to play along and pretend we weren’t acquainted. I waited for her to wrap the thorny flower, then paid for the rose, uttered an unconcerned “grazie, buona giornata,” and motioned toward the door, but then I quickly turned around and handed the rose to Rafaella. “Per Lei, signora,” I said, using the formal pronoun, and ran out of the store before she could say or do anything. For about a week after that she missed our late-night secret rendezvous, although that same evening I saw her among a group of friends, wearing a red rose in her long, loose hair.
Something stylized and overwrought in Rafaella’s appearance now bleeds through the sheets of memory, but I certainly didn’t make much of it when I knew her in Ladispoli that summer. Light sandals with straps woven up and around her slender ankles and calves, long billowy skirts, and low-cut blouses with long, drooping sleeves. That was her fashion. There was a muddy creaminess to her face, a dark glow that enhanced the coral whiteness of her perfect teeth. Like me, Rafaella was—or were?—a true Gemini, with two conflicting personalities. She was pensive and subdued, even sulky, or else almost mad with sensual energy. I have no idea why, for almost a month, she kept me as her nighttime companion. I certainly would have chosen her—who wouldn’t? Rafaella was the most dazzling girl I met that whole summer in Italy. But why did she choose me? Was it because she, too, felt like something of a foreigner?
Her English was the best of all the Italians in the group, and with Rafaella I felt I could express myself more adequately. I didn’t find myself alone with her until the end of June, two weeks into our Ladispoli stay, and our first date was an American movie, a Wednesday-night screening at the local American Center run by a proselytizing pastor and his wife. The movie was called Breaking Away. It was set in Bloomington, Indiana, where three years later I was to teach summer-school Russian. In the movie a local boy, the son of a used-car dealer, pretends to be an Italian exchange student as he romances an American college girl. After the movie we walked to the beach. Rafaella couldn’t move at a steady pace, and was now running ahead of me and hopping across the breaking waves, screaming and lifting up the bottom of her skirt, then slowing down to pick up and study a shell or a sliver of polished glass or a bleached chunk of wood. It was already past eleven; the beach had grown empty. Under a glowering moon we settled in the cooling sand near the edge of the water and sat for a while, talking, groping for something we both shared. She told me after university she wanted to move to Rome and get a studio apartment in Trastevere. “And live life,” as she put it. Unlike the other Italians my age, Rafaella was completely indifferent to politics and didn’t ask me about my Soviet past. She was a lot more interested in my American future, yet there wasn’t much I could tell her about it, beyond my family’s vague plans to settle on the East Coast.
“When I was little my parents considered going to America,” Rafaella said dreamily. “But we moved here instead. So I could’ve been an American girl if things had been different.”
“Cold sand,” I said, snaking my arm around her waist. It was a come-on line worthy of eternal damnation.
Without shaking off my hand, she turned to me and said,“You’re like the others, aren’t you?”
“Like who?” I asked.
“Like the Italian boys.”
“No, I’m not,” I replied, both trembling and laughing a nervous laugh. “I’m not like the Italian boys.”
“If you’re not,” Rafaella said, changing her tone to playful and jumping on to her feet, “if you’re not, then I’ll take you someplace else.”
“Where?” I got up to follow her.
“A special place. Come.”
We walked silently to the parapet, where we’d left her sandals and my espadrilles. I followed Rafaella through the nighttime streets of Ladispoli, illuminated by thirsty streetlights. A neon rose flickered in the vitrine of a flower shop on Via Ancona. A rotund balding man in a long apron was pulling a chain through the gilded backs of chairs in front of a café-gelateria that was too upscale for refugees.
“Ciao, Rafaella,” his lethargic voice greeted my companion.
“Ciao, Giuseppe, buona notte,” she replied, speeding along, two steps ahead of me.
“Rafaella, where are we going?” I asked as we approached the train station.
“We’re almost there, you’ll see,” she answered, singing out her vowels.
We traversed the empty square in front of the train station, our own slack shadows rising over the walls and falling onto dusty cobblestones. I caught a glimpse of a monument to some Italian dignitary of yore—a duke, perhaps a general, or the fearless Garibaldi himself. To the left of the train station, abutting the ivy-strangled fence that separated the train tracks from the town’s underbelly, there was a parking lot where commuters left their cars in the morning. Now only three or four strays remained, their owners caught up in daily chores or nightly revelries. The lot, it seemed, hadn’t been repaved in years.
Rafaella took my hand and tugged at it, sensing my hesitation. We now stood in the center of the parking lot, under an ancient street lamp with a cast-iron post, its black leaf rendered even more ornate by noble streaks of rust.
“You’re going to America,” Rafaella said, releasing my left hand to powers of gravity. “Right?”
“Right,” I answered, bewildered by her question and her tone.
“So you’ve got to experience a real American car.”
Rafaella sprang around, gave me a look of triumph, and pointed her right hand to one of the cars I thought had been abandoned for the night.
“Just look at it, Russian boy,” she said, speaking with some artificial, chewy accent meant to sound American. “Ain’t this sumptn.”
It was a yellow sedan, the sort of canary yellow that looked mustardy when bathed in the empty lot’s dusky air. I peered closer. From the front the car looked like a living creature with glassy eyes set widely, a black mustache on its upper lip, a narrow mouth of badly corroded metallic teeth, and a brace on the lower jaw. Plastered onto the front teeth was a rearing-up horse.
“A real beauty, isn’t it?” Rafaella said, stroking the car.
I said nothing. I didn’t know what to say, how to react. The rusty old thing didn’t mean much to me.
“It’s a Ford Mustang. The real deal,” Rafaella impatiently explained. “Have you heard of Mustangs?”
“Only the horses,” I said, studying the inside of the car through the passenger window. The car had a red interior and red seats. And a black-and-red steering wheel.
“All vintage 1965,” said Rafaella, her fingers sliding like raindrops down the roof and the driver’s-side window. On the driver’s door I noticed a couple of rusty wounds from assassins’ blades and the long deep scratches of jealous lovers’ nails.
“It has a personality, a temper,” Rafaella said, as if reading my mind. “And a soul.”
“An American soul?” I asked, catching on and now playing along.
“What else?” Rafaella said, laughing and pulling back her long hair.
“How long have you had it?” I asked.
“Two years. It belongs to my mother’s older sister. She’s very, very beautiful. She married a man from Milan—that was before I was born. And she used to drive this car herself.”
I reflected, in passing, that in the Soviet Union, getting one’s own private automobile amounted to such a life event that people gave them personal names and treated them as family members. Our first car—a Fiat look-alike manufactured in Togliatti on the Volga—was bright red, and my father named her “Corrida.” As in bullfights.
“Is it a boy or a girl?” I asked.
“It’s a…both,” Rafaella answered, pulling the door open.
“Don’t you lock it?”
“I do, but the lock’s broken, and I just push down the lever, and it looks like it’s locked. It’s an old baby, you know,” she said, getting into the car and starting the engine. The stations kept changing on the broken radio, songs flowing in and out of each other.
“Sometimes it doesn’t start, and I just sit inside and listen to the music—when the radio’s working—or the rain. My father keeps telling me not to leave it here. One day it’s probably going to get stolen. We live outside the town center, and I like to ride to town alone. To town and back home, as late as I want. I like the freedom.”
I walked around to the other side and pulled on the lock, but the door didn’t yield.
“Sorry, mister,” Rafaella said. “It only opens from my side. Your side’s jammed.”
She jumped out of the car and lowered the seat. “Welcome to America,” she said.
I crouched to the back seat and slid over to the window; Rafaella climbed in and sat close to me.
“Do you know what a lover’s lane is?” she asked, slipping her hand into mine. “They have them in small towns in America.” And she bit my lower lip.
“Uh-huh,” I uttered, no longer capable of speaking English.
“Do you have?” Rafaella asked.
I understood what she asked and said “yes,” reaching for my wallet and remembering a recent visit to a beachside farmacia. “Yes, I have it,” I said, ripping open the small checker.
“Good boy,” Rafaella said. “Come here.”
And so it was on the back seat of a rusty Mustang that I let out my first Italian call of passion. It lasted so long that, it seemed, several trains had rushed by, up the coast to Pisa and Genoa and Milan and down to Naples and further south, to Sicily.
“So loud, so wild,” Rafaella finally said, pulling down her long skirt. “The temperance police will come and arrest you.“
She kissed me on the nose and got out of the car—something she had to do in order to move to the front seat. “Now let me give you a ride back.”
We pulled out of the lover’s lane, and a few minutes later I was back in our apartment, where my parents were already sleeping. Where America was both a remote dream and a near future.
As I discovered that summer, even youthful refugee love cannot escape triangulation. I came to realize it about three weeks into my secret life with Rafaella, after bumping into Lana Bernsteyn in Lapispoli’s main piazza. I had dated Lana during my freshman year at Moscow University. She was almost five years my senior, and our parents knew each other through the Jewish refusenik circuit. A classic ingénue she was, a worrywart, a great lover of ballet. She was in her last semester at the Moscow Institute of Communications when we became close. She read and critiqued my first poems, focusing almost exclusively on what she deemed “lyrical truth.” She had small pointy breasts and symmetrical birthmarks on her clavicles. Lana and I broke up by the end of the spring of 1985, although we remained friends. In December 1985, Lana’s mother, who for years had been desperate to emigrate, walked out of the window, falling onto the pavement from the eleventh floor. Lana called me in May 1987 to say that she, too, was emigrating, with her father, brother, and grandmother.
Lana and her family left Moscow two weeks after my family had, catching up with us in Ladispoli. And they were now standing in the main piazza, which Soviet refugees had appropriated as their open-air salon. They were standing there and eating gelato: Lana, her father who used to be an ordinary Pravda-reading Soviet engineer, Lana’s Yiddish-mumbling grandmother on his arm, and Lana’s younger brother who had instantly turned into an Italian urchin. With a new, even shorter haircut, in a turquoise sundress showing a lot of back and chest, Lana looked younger, college-age, and she was then twenty-five. I was happy to see her; in Ladispoli she was a present link to my past Moscow life and friends. Yet I was embarrassed about running into Lana. It felt like someone had staged this reunion with my old flame. The fourth act was only beginning, complete with renewed jealousy, confessions, and mutual estrangement, and Chekhov’s double-barrel had yet to shoot our love dead at the corner table of an empty trattoria.
Minutes after running into each other, Lana and I left our family members at the piazza and walked in the direction of the Odescalchi-Palo castle built on the Roman ramparts. We stopped at a concession stand on the way, and I got each of us a curvy bottle of Coca-Cola, still a novelty to us both. We sat on the rocks near the ruins of the castle, finishing our Coca-Colas and filling in the various blanks we hadn’t had time to complete before leaving Moscow.
On the other side of the rocks, a man in a Panama hat with a long telescopic fishing pole was yelling something against the wind to a boy who was fishing farther away from us, off another group of jagged rocks. Maybe he wasn’t yelling but just had a trumpeting Italian voice.
“So tell me about you and Matvey?” I asked, over cheerful.
“What can I tell you?” Lana said. “Matvey told me he wouldn’t hear of not going to Israel. And then there was my own darling papochka. I felt guilty leaving him and my little brother. Do you know how much I hate feeling guilty!?”
We were just talking, catching up, nothing had happened yet, and I already could feel tedium rolling over me like spent waves depositing foam on the rocks. Like a romance with the past.
Lana grew silent. For a while we sat without saying anything to each other. “An angel of quiet has flown by,” someone might have said in a Russian novel. But we weren’t living a classical novel set on a country estate. Ours was a modern refugee story unfolding by the Tyrrhenian Sea.
“Are you seeing someone?” Lana asked point-blank, surprising me.
“Why? No, not really,” I answered, thinking of what had happened two days before at the parking lot outside the train station, of Rafaella’s Mustang and the night trains roaring by.
“Because I want to get back together,” Lana said in the same voice as when she used to critique my poems. “I want to be your girlfriend.”
We got up from the rocks and walked back along the water. Lana’s cool fingers tickled the small of my elbow before enmeshing themselves in mine. We were still some distance away from the “Russian section” of the beach when Lana stopped. Except for a couple of cigarette embers glowing above the parapet, we were alone on the beach.
“I’d like to go in the water,” Lana said.
“How will you dry yourself off?” I asked.
“With my sundress. You coming?”
“No, I’ll wait here.”
She dropped her sundress and underwear into the sand and ran into the water. I waited, her dress in my hands, her underwear in my pocket, as Lana splashed near the shore.
“It’s warm, like milk from under the cow,” she yelled. “Are you coming?”
When she finally stepped out of the water, lithe and moonlit, a strip of white dividing her in two, I stood behind her and dried her off with the sundress. My hands cupped her breasts and held them.
“I’ve missed you,” Lana said, placing her hands on top of mine. “Don’t stop.”
I pulled my hands from under hers, and the wet sundress fell into the sand like a drunk reveler.
“What’s wrong?” asked Lana.
“I don’t know.”
Lana stepped aside to shake the sand out of dress, then put it on crooked.
“It’s that Moorish belle in garish skirts, isn’t it?” she asked. “I’ve heard about her and you.”
“No, it’s not Rafaella, believe me,” I answered.
“Why then don’t you want to get back together?”
“This just doesn’t feel right, Lanochka. I’m sorry.”
“You’re not sorry,” Lana said, and she ran off into the brackish darkness.
On the way home I remembered her clumped underwear in my pocket and slipped it into a trash bin.
For the next three weeks, when Lana and I met at the beach and the other Russian hangouts, we acted as though the walk and her night swimming never happened. Finally, one sunset, I saw her on the boulevard in the company of a gangly fellow from Leningrad, the son of a famous astronomer, whose family came to Ladispoli around the same time as we did. Of Lana’s new friend I heard through the refugee grapevine that he was a “mathematical genius.” Lana and the genius were dripping gelato on the red gravel path and arguing about something—a poem, perhaps, or a painting. I muttered “buona notte” and waved feebly as I passed them by. I was hurrying to meet my Italian friends.
During the early part of the day I would usually spend time at the beach with my parents and other Soviet refugees. The early parts of many evenings passed in the company of Italians, and seeing Rafaella only sharpened the anticipation of what, I hoped, was to come later at night. In public Rafaella and I continued to pretend we were just friends. Usually between eleven and midnight, I would walk to the lover’s lane behind the Ladispoli train station, hoping to find Rafaella’s Mustang. Sometimes it would be there, grazing in one of the lot’s murkier corners. On some evenings the Mustang would be missing from the lot. Is she two-timing me? I mused. What if it’s one of ours, also a “Russian boy”? When the Mustang was there, I’d get in and climb into the back seat, and on a few occasions she was already there expecting me. At other times I’d sprawl out and listen to the crickets chirruping, to tiny cracking noises under the dome of the yellow street lamp, and wait, fretfully, for her arrival. “Ciao, Russian boy,” Rafaella would say in a voice that parodied itself. “I haven’t seen you in so-ooo long.”
“I was here yesterday, and the night before yesterday,” I would reply.
“I’m sorry, honey,” she would drawl out, stroking my forearm with her fingertips and puckering her lips, “I had to go to Trenton with my mom and dad, to visit my aunt who’s very sick. But I’m here now, aren’t I? Aren’t I?”
We would rest on the back seat, my arms locked around her shoulders and chest, listening for the approach of the furious trains bound for great cities and telling each other about the American lives we’d never had.
Without setting the terms in advance, Rafaella and I played a waiting love game, whose main suspension of reality consisted in pretending we were lovers in a small American coastal town, perhaps somewhere in Maine or Connecticut or New Jersey. I barely knew the difference. Nor did she, for that matter. Neither of us had been to America—everything we knew about it was from movies, from reading, from what we’d heard from others. In retrospect it seems that to render it more authentic, the game might have been better served by a bigger car—like the silver Chevy Malibu Classic that would become my first car in America. But in Ladispoli Rafaella’s trusty Mustang more than did the trick.
For about a month our secret dates followed their own pattern of furtive desire, until one night at the end of July Lana played a biblical trick on me. And I didn’t even see it coming. There had been a rainstorm earlier that afternoon, at the time the closest thing I’d experienced to a tropical downpour. It had started during lunch, and my parents and I observed it from our apartment’s balcony: sheaths of dark water ripping leaves and young branches off the chestnut trees on the boulevard, the fruitier piling up his wooden crates under an asparagus-green umbrella and running for cover to his rickety truck. When it finally cleared up at sunset, the air felt pristine, cleansed of the usual smells—culinary and charry—of a southern resort.
Later that evening, as I climbed into the back seat of the Mustang, a familiar scent filtered into my nostrils. Where had it come from? The scent brought with it the spring of 1985, my freshman year at the university, the old subway station across the street from the old Moscow Zoo, shrieks of fowl from the pond where grayish panes of ice still floated in the middle. Instead of sitting through a double orgo lecture by Madame Gudkova, I was walking to Lana’s apartment at a late-morning hour in spring. Lana was standing in the door, wearing her mother’s bathrobe. From the staircase I could feel her perfume, flowery with a whiff of spice. Like all good Soviet perfumes it was French, with the word “mystery” in its short, iambic name. “I’d have to change my personality if they ever stopped making this perfume,” Lana told me soon after we started seeing each other.
I imagined Rafaella when Lana and I made love on the back seat of the Mustang—recklessly, just as we had in Russia. I thought not of Lana, to whom I used to know how to make love, but of Rafaella, who made me nervous. But I was picturing Lana’s cluttered old Moscow apartment, the heavy chocolate-brown drapes, the herniated radiators overheating the rooms, a framed spectral photo of her parents on their Crimean honeymoon, and the swelling but still naked limes and birches outside the windows, also a decrepit bench with a row of elderly ladies warming their bones in the feeble April sun. “Oy mamochka,” Lana said just as she used to back in Moscow when she crossed over, the familiar “oy mamochka” instead of Rafaella’s cinematic “mamma mia,” which was hard to believe even as it transported me across the Tyrrhenian Sea to Tunisia or Libya. Our lovemaking was rougher than it had ever been in Moscow, less tender and comforting, and it arced over my whole youth. If it’s possible to relieve oneself of romantic attachments to a shared past, Lana and I accomplished it on the back seat of Rafaella’s tatty automobile.
Now back to Rafaella and the conclusion. Two days after finding Lana in the Mustang, I overheard Rafaella talking to a friend about her car. We were standing among a group of Italian friends and I understood—more or less—that before she went to Urbino for the autumn semester, she was taking the car to the shop to be refurbished. Rafaella’s father had apparently agreed to give her money for the repairs, after reading an article about the Mustang Club of Rome and inquiring about the value of this model. “Well,” I thought to myself, “that marks the end of the affair.”
Another week went by, and I saw Rafaella cruising down Via Ancona, Ladispoli’s main avenue, in her Mustang. Next to her, grinning like a gangster on holiday, his right arm dangling outside like a braided whip, was the genius mathematician from Leningrad, the very one I’d seen walking the boulevard with Lana Bernsteyn. Rafaella and the genius were sailing through sunset, all gusty with pleasure, “Hotel California” blasting at the top of the Mustang’s wheezy lungs. The radio must have been fixed, or a tape deck installed. “He has it all calculated, lucky dog,” I remember thinking about my rival—now doubly my rival. “First he walks with Lana, now he’s out on a joyride with Rafaella.”
The last three Ladispoli weeks sped by like Italian motorcyclists on a cliff road, and then it was finally time to be packing our suitcases again. Thus ends my story with Rafaella, Lana, and the rusty Mustang. Three days before my parents and I took a transatlantic flight from Rome to New York, my Italian friends threw a dinner party in my honor. It was in a tavern on the northern outskirts of town, off Via Aurelia, in an olive grove. A long table had been set under a canopy of sun-filled branches. The fare was inauspicious—they were all students with slim pockets: pizza, salad, watery red wine out of sweating carafes. We toasted my departure and new American life.
After dinner, when it came time to say goodbye and exchange addresses (“exchange” doesn’t describe it, as I didn’t have an address, only the name of the New England city my parents and I had picked), Rafaella scribbled something on a napkin and passed it to me, folded.
“You can always write care of the flower shop,” she said.
At home, as I copied the addresses into a notebook, I found this note on Rafaella’s folded napkin:
I went early, of course, but she was already there, sitting in the driver’s seat and humming along with the radio.
“Can you drive, Russian boy?” Rafaella asked, pulling at a button of my short-sleeve shirt.
“Of course I can,” I answered, taken aback by the question. My father had taught me to drive our pared-down Soviet Fiat, although I never did get a driver’s license in Moscow.
“Get in, take it out for a spin.” She moved over to the passenger side, straightening the lap of her long black skirt.
“Right now?” I asked.
“Yes, right now,” Rafaella shouted back, dialing up the volume. “Come on, Russian boy. Let’s go. What are you waiting for? America?”
Born in Moscow in 1967, Maxim D. Shrayer immigrated to the U.S. in 1987. He is professor of Russian and English at Boston College. A bilingual writer and translator, Shrayer is the author and editor of ten books, including The World of Nabokov’s Stories and Russian Poet/Soviet Jew. He recently edited and co-translated the two-volume Anthology of Jewish-Russian Literature. Shrayer adapted “Sarda Resarta” from his forthcoming memoir, Waiting for America: A Story of Emigration. (updated 10/2007)