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No sooner do I begin to swing open the door, than my mother storms in. And before even uttering a single word, she puts her hand on my forehead. I roll my eyes. Why is everyone assuming I am sick, and why are they all looking for a fever? I pull her hand off.
“Mother,” I say in English, “I am not sick. I am fine.”
Uh-oh. Big mistake. Now they are both staring at me. Whatever this place is that I ended up in, people here definitely have something against English.
The dog, meanwhile, is making rounds among us, trying to get noticed.
“Did you want me to walk Dzhonsik?” the woman who came in with my mother asks.
She must be Natasha. “Yes, please,” I say aloud, this time in Russian.
When the dog and the woman named Natasha leave, my mother gets busy. She takes off the white mink coat that cascades down her back all the way to her ankles, unwraps her Burberry cashmere scarf, and proceeds to unzip her leather boots, which look at least as expensive as both her coat and her scarf combined. I watch in silence as she opens the hall closet, produces a pair of slippers with red pom-poms on them, and then screams out in horror.
I jump. “What?”
“You are not wearing any slippers.”
I look at my bare feet. “And?” I am confused. I always go around without slippers in New York, and she never says a thing. Besides, the floors in this place seem to be heated.
“You’ll get sick. It’s freezing cold outside. And you are walking around barefoot. Where are your slippers?”
“I don’t know.” That is the truth. How would I know where these people keep their slippers? I was lucky enough to have found the bathrobe.
“And in your condition.” My mother is shaking her head while looking around. “Are they in your bedroom?”
Just as I prepare to answer with another “I don’t know,” her last sentence reaches my already exhausted brain. “Condition? What condition, Mother?”
She looks at me funny and begins reaching for my forehead again.
“Stop it!” Now I am losing it. “What condition?”
When she says it, I can’t believe her. On top of everything else that has happened, I am now confronted with yet more shocking news.
I am eight weeks pregnant.
When that happened, I could not tell you. But I am silently wondering if getting married and eight weeks pregnant all in the space of one night would qualify for the Guinness Book of World Records.
My mother appears to know the house very well. She finds my slippers–I actually own slippers with heels (why would anyone want to be this uncomfortable at home?)–and asks me if I have eaten. When she hears a no in response, she shakes her head, takes me by the elbow, and marches me into the kitchen. There, she instructs me to sit at a sleek white table and proceeds to open and close cabinets, looking for something. I glance around the kitchen and wonder if anyone has ever cooked in here. Everything is either stainless steel or white, everything is immaculate, and everything looks completely unused. Well, except that herb garden on the windowsill.
When my mother finds what she is looking for, I cringe. Then I watch in horror as she throws buckwheat into the pot, covers it with water, adds butter, and puts it on the stove. The last time I ate buckwheat was in third grade. My mother always swore by the wholesomeness of this cereal, but after eating it almost every morning for the first eight years of my life, I refused to even look at it when I turned nine. I hated the stuff. And I still do. But today, I think I have much bigger fish to fry than argue about the cereal.
“So you don’t remember a thing?” my mother asks while the buckwheat is heating up.
“Of course I do, Mama,” I protest. “It’s just that this isn’t what I remember.” We are now speaking only in Russian.
“Then what do you remember?”
“Where do I start?” I say in exasperation. “For one thing, I wasn’t married. And I was definitely not pregnant.”
My mother’s brow goes up. Just one. I always wondered how she could do that.
“What else do you remember?” she asks.
The buckwheat begins to boil. And just the way she did when I was little, my mother turns down the heat and covers the pot all in one swift movement. If I had any doubts this was my mother, they are fast disappearing.
“I was living in New York with a…”
“You were living in New York?” My mother stops what she was doing, turns to me, and squints in suspicion. “Why?”
“What do you mean why?” At first I look at her as if she were mentally ill. But then I remember that she doesn’t know about our other life. “We were all living in New York. You and Dad were living in Brooklyn, and I lived in Manhattan. On the Upper East side.”
I can tell by her reaction that none of this is making sense to her. And that she is seriously beginning to worry about my mental health. So I decide to go easy on the telling and instead do some asking.
“So where are we now?” I ask as innocently as I can.
“Well, in your house, naturally.”
Great, Mom, I think. Tell me something I have not figured out yet! But aloud I say, “And what city and country are we in?” I have a nagging suspicion we are no longer in the United States.
My mother gives me a look, one that seems to have survived this weird transformation she has undergone between yesterday and today. She’s always been a master at this kind of look–the perfect mixture of don’t-take-me-for-an-idiot and I-am-onto-you. I used to get these looks a lot as a teenager.
“It’s true, Mother!” I exclaim. “I have no idea where we are.” Why I still feel the need to defend myself every time I get this look, I don’t know.
After a short pause that to me seems like a very long one, she finally responds. “St. Petersburg, Russia,” she says. “The city where you were born and lived your entire life.”
My entire life?
“Russia?” I repeat. Even though I’ve been speaking, or rather struggling to speak, Russian this entire morning, and even though I’ve been surrounded by people who spoke only Russian to me, being in Russia still comes as a shock.
Then I think of the neoclassical buildings I saw from the window, and I remember the old postcards my mother always kept in the cupboard at home and showed to me whenever she felt some educational nagging was required. “See,” she would point to those featuring buildings like the ones outside, “you come from a city of great history and culture. You should behave as such.”
I feel dumbstruck. How do you go to sleep in your tiny two-bedroom in New York and wake up in this huge designer show apartment in St. Petersburg? Married and pregnant on top of all that? I really must write a letter to those people at the Guinness Book of World Records. That is, if it exists.
Hold the thought.
How do I know it actually exists?
All sorts of suspicions pop into my head. Really, anything is possible at this point. How do I know what year it is? Am I just assuming I am still twenty-four, the age I was yesterday? And what is the world like now? The questions spill out of my mouth before I can think them through.
“How old am I now? Where is father? And Carrie? Who is the man I saw this morning? Who is Natasha? What’s going on in the world? How…”
“Vika! Stop.” My mother’s voice cuts in. “I am really beginning to worry about you.” She gets up, turns off the buckwheat, and methodically begins to answer my frantic questions.
“You are twenty-four. Your father is at work, as usual, and,” she narrows her eyes into tiny slits, “I think I need to have a chat with him about this little memory slip you are having.”
Why does she sound like my father might be in trouble?
Rebecca Strong is a writer and an artist. She’s always careful about her acquaintances and her knowledge of geopolitical rivalries is purely accidental.