Fiction May 1998

Licks of Love in the Heart of the Cold War

If a man can't walk around in his own country without fear, what business does he have selling freedom to the Russians?

They had saved Leningrad for me to the last, since it was where the Communists, still remembering the siege, were the toughest, and I might run into the most hostility from an audience. But as soon as my Gibson began talking, the picked strings all rolling like the synchronized wheels, big and little, of the Wabash Cannonball, the smiles of mutual understanding would start breaking out. I am not a brave man, but I have faith in my instrument and in people's decent instincts. St. Petersburg, as we call it again, is one beautiful city, a Venice where you least expect it, all those big curved buildings in Italian colors. The students in their gloomy old ballrooms were worried about Goldwater getting elected, and I told them that the American people would never elect a warmonger. I was always introduced as a "progressive" American folk artist, but I had to tell them that there wasn't much progressive about me—my folks had been lifelong Democrats, because of a war fought a hundred years ago, and I wasn't going to be the one to change parties.

Then, just as I was about to get back onto Aeroflot, Khrushchev was pushed out of power, and all the Soviets around me tightened up, wary of what was going to happen next. This whole huge empire was run out of some back rooms by a few beetle-browed men. Nadia—my voice, my guide, my protector, closer to me for this month than a wife, because I couldn't have done without her—complimented me by confiding, somewhere out on the Nevsky Prospekt, or in some hallway where no bugs were likely to be placed, "Eddie, it was not civilized. It was not done how a civilized country should do things. We should have said `Thank you very much for ending the terror.' And then `You are excused—too much adventurism, okay, failures in agricultural production, and et cetera. Okay, so long, but bolshoi thanks.'"

At moments, toward the end of a long public day in, say, Tashkent, her English would deteriorate, out of sheer weariness from drawing on two sets of brain cells, and her eyelids and the tip of her long white nose would get pink. We would say goodnight in the hotel lobby, with its musty-attic smell and lamps whose bases were brass bears, and she would give me in her handshake not the palm and the meat of the thumb but four cool fingers, aligned like a sergeant's stripes. That was the way we began to say good-bye in the airport, until we leaped the gulf between our two great countries and I kissed her on one cheek and then the other and hugged her, in proper Slavic style. Her eyes teared up, but it may have been just the start of a cold.

Bud told me in the airport, so casually that I should have smelled trouble, "We took you off the APO number two days ago, so your mail won't show up here after you leave. It will be forwarded to your home."

"Sounds reasonable," I said, not thinking.

Coming back, on the last leg, out of Paris, I had an experience such as I've never had again in all my miles of flying. We came down on the big arc over Gander and Nova Scotia and from five miles up I could see New York, hundreds of miles away, a little blur of light in the cold plastic oval of the plane window which grew and grew, like a fish I was pulling in. My cheek got cold against the plastic as I pressed to keep the light in view, a spot on the invisible surface of the earth like a nebula, like a dust mouse, only glowing, the fuzzy center of our heavenly liberty. Just it and me, there in the night sky, communing. It was a vision.

After I cleared customs at Kennedy, I phoned home, though it was after ten o'clock. I was so happy to be in the land of the free. My wife answered with something in her voice besides welcome, like a fearful salamander under a big warm rock. "Some letters for you came today and yesterday," she said. "All from one person, it looks like."

How bright this airport was, I thought, compared with the one in Moscow. Every corner and rampway was lit as harshly as a mug shot. The place was packed with advertisements and snack bars, sizzling with electricity. "Did you open them?" I asked, my heart suddenly plunked by a heavy hand.

"Just one," she said. "That was enough, Eddie. Oh, my."

"It wasn't anything," I began, which wasn't a hundred percent true. For though I was very unhappy with Imogene for making what looked to be an ongoing mess, you can't blame a person for thinking you're a god. You have to feel a spark of fondness, remembering the way she held up one breast and then the other, each nipple looking in that black-and-white room like the hole of a gun barrel pointed straight at your mouth. You can go to the dark side of the moon and back and see nothing more wonderful and strange than the way men and women get together.

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John Updike is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Rabbit Is Rich (1981) and Rabbit at Rest (1990), and sixteen other novels. His most recent book is Toward the End of Time (1997).

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