By Liana Charles
When I came down the stairs of our mid-range Beijing hotel and saw Misha (slender, very Slavic, with eyes like an Arctic fox and a horrible mop of feathered blond hair), I instantly fell in love. Six months after high school and one month after my 18th birthday, I was wrestling with the new concept that I had a personality, and was desperate to see if others thought so too. After a dreary few years, now life seemed to be starting. I was ready to see grand narratives in everything, and especially here, at the beginning of a month on a train from Beijing all the way north to St. Petersburg, this gangly Russian man seemed custom-made for my dream romance.
There were two main barriers: the tour group we were on also included my mother, and Misha, despite being only twenty-two, was the tour guide. He introduced himself as Mikhail (‘but you can call me Mike’), the Russian accent very subtle. I could feel my mother looking at me as I looked at him, me pretending she didn’t know what I was thinking.
In Beijing, he took a backseat to the local guides. It was hot, humid, and in the name of modesty I was wearing knee-length jean shorts. With my sex appeal at an all-time low, my debut as a romance heroine was not going well.
On our first leg of the Trans-Mongolian Express, the patient rhythm of the train wound us through valleys between deep green mountains, Beijing’s smog forgotten as we drank soup from one mug and tea from another. Mum, of course, was helping people get to know each other, setting up card games and talking to anyone who was left out. I stared out the window and tried to think of metaphors.
At midnight on the border with Mongolia the gauge of the train tracks changed, so in a huge shed the whole train was lifted, wheels separated from carriages, new width of wheels re-attached. As we hovered in the bright empty hall I poked my head out one window for Misha to take a photo of me from another. “Pretty,” he murmured, maybe surprised.
The next day saw flashes of the Gobi, distant camels, and me pretending to enjoy War and Peace. We stopped in Ulaanbaatar and drove slowly to a little tourist camp in the mountains. The giant snooker table in the main lodge was warped with as many peaks and troughs as the land outside, so the locals demolished us, sending curving trick shots along the bowed table. Misha got angrier at every miss, cursing in Russian. “How passionate,” I sighed. Mum rolled her eyes. Current me rolls her eyes, too.
We took the low, slow way to the temple in the neighbouring valley, hundreds of stone steps up to strips of red and yellow against the green. At the mountain crest, I picked wildflowers and stuck them in my hair, willing him to notice me. Mum did. “You look beautiful, darling.”
At the border with Russia, Mum and I climbed a hill to have lunch overlooking the small town. “It’s desolate,” she said. Behind us the cemetery bloomed with a million fresh flowers. When one of the Americans called him Mikey I asked why he didn’t insist on Mikhail. “My friends actually call me the Russian nickname – Misha.”
“So should I call you Misha?”
‘Are you my friend?’ He smiled slyly at me. I think he knew what I wanted. I didn’t.
After Yekaterinburg, before dusk, the forests outside looked like where all fairy tales began. I stood with Misha, drinking tea with lemon, as he told me some Russian ones. “So if we are friends then, Liana, we should know one another. You have a favourite book?” I said Siddhartha and launched into a little thesis on it, while he smiled more and more. Eventually he said,
“This book… it is also my favourite book. Well.” A pause. “What do we do now?” I saw cosmic gridlines intersecting us. We went to his cabin, poured some vodka, started talking, when my mother knocked and pulled me outside.
“What are you doing?”
“Nothing.” She knew exactly what I was doing.
After this we turned every excuse into a chance to talk alone, about books and philosophy and music and everything that seemed very important to talk about, that seemed very important for him to tell me about when I had the wrong opinion. I started writing a long poem about being on the brink of life, full of bird metaphors. In Moscow, Mum and I decided to spend the day apart; I took photos of everything so I could show her later.
Our final evening in Moscow, the group was about to head home when Misha announced he was thinking of checking out a jazz bar, not big enough for everyone. I was first volunteer, a young American second, my mother third. Unthinkingly, I glared at her. “Unless you don’t want me there?”
“Of course I do!” I didn’t.
“Well, actually I’m too tired. Can I speak to you for a moment, darling?” She pulled me aside and with a firm grip on my arm hiss-whispered, “Don’t hit on the tour guide!”
“What! Mum I-”
“Don’t.” Then with a perfect smile and enjoy-your-evening, she left.
At the jazz bar, I remembered I didn’t like jazz. Close to midnight I was alone with Misha in the hotel corridor for a minute; after he closed his door I picked up my foot to walk towards him but, of course, did not. Boarding the final train we were frantically discussing Radiohead until Mum’s head popped out to tell us to go to bed. I pulled a face at Misha, to which he shook his head. ‘I think your mother’s wonderful. Truly. You would be lucky to be like her someday.’ A message from the future, which I did not yet have the technology to decipher.
Finally, in St Petersburg, the white city of endless pale sun, we ended. Misha was officially leaving us at lunch, which was when I slipped him a note. The force that through the green fuse drives the flower, handwritten, plus my address. I knew, though, that he was coming back to our hotel that night. At 9pm I told Mum I was going to read War and Peace in the lobby. “Don’t do it. You’ll regret it.” He came in at 11, maybe tipsy, smiled when he saw me.
“Oh Liana. I’m sorry.” Hugged me and kissed the air near my forehead, then was gone. Back in my twin room I went to the bathroom, and cried bitterly. The next night Mum got us very drunk on very bad vodka. In the shadow of that hangover I realised, simply, that I had been cruel to the kindest person in the world.
I started this laughing at my past dreamy self, my big-hearted naivety, and then realised that just Monday I left another handwritten love note for a boy in New York, though at least I could kiss this one goodbye. That story will have to wait, until a few year’s hindsight makes my present blues just another travel story.