A Well-Worn Memory of Moscow

The first time I met Maria Konstantinovna, she was wearing a black leather skirt. It was Italian, brand new, and it was mine.

Masha, as I would come to know her, was a dejournaya in Moscow. Women like her sat on every floor in every hotel in the Soviet Union. They performed a range of duties—they served tea from a samovar that simmered behind their station. They ordered your phone call to America and came to wake you if it ever went through. They even washed lingerie and t-shirts, leaving the latter folded like fine envelopes, whiter than they ever deserved to be. They also handed out your room key with varying degrees of suspicion, charm, or ennui, and if you wanted to leave it for safekeeping, collected it when you left the floor. But allegedly, the real purpose of these hall monitors was to observe your comings and goings on behalf of the security apparatus of the Kremlin.

It was my second trip to Cold War Moscow.

One year earlier, I had arrived there with a new degree in Russian Studies and stayed in an old hotel in the center of town. On nights when I drank too much Georgian champagne, I crossed the street and walked alone past the cupolas and red brick walls of Red Square. Now I was back as a tour guide of sorts, a liaison, for groups of doctors who were on continuing education junkets. I was a translator, a babysitter, holder of boarding passes and whipping post if need be when tempers grew hot traveling around the Soviet Empire—which they often did. It was part of my job description to be cheerful, but when my busload of jetlagged gastroenterologists and I arrived at our hulking mass of a hotel, I despaired.

Our official Intourist guide told us it had been built in 1979 to house athletes and guests for the Olympics the following year. That much was obvious; it was a model Soviet vanity project, from the monstrous scale to the banners out front which erupted with optimism: ''Onward!'' they proclaimed. Across the street was a giant park devoted to the fruits of socialism, as well as a massive Space Obelisk. Inside, it was as sprawling and noisy as a city, and the air was dense with cigarette smoke and the grease from several restaurants.

Prior to my trip, a fellow tour guide had informed me that there were fiber-optic cables installed in every room, and that the entire twenty-fifth floor was devoted to surveillance. He claimed to have stumbled upon a wall of reel-to-reel tape recorders there. President Reagan had just given his Evil Empire speech, and the country was being run by an ex-KGB chief, Yuri Andropov. Paranoia was everywhere—in bars and on park benches where we changed dollars for rubles on the black market with people we had no reason to trust and who must have assumed we were listening to them.

As my new job paid little and I would depend on tips, I was eager to prove myself. But the first morning I woke up with a foggy head and aching limbs. So with apologies for being sick on day one, I loaded my fourteen physicians and their spouses onto the coach with their Russian guide and then repaired back upstairs, hungry for my bed. I peeled my clothes off and crawled in naked. The sheets were coarse cotton and delightfully crunchy, and the duvet still held a welcoming hint of my own body warmth.

I woke up to the sight of two men going through my suitcase at the foot of the bed. One man's arm was buried in a zipper compartment; the other man was turned toward the window, holding my raincoat up to the light.

''What are you doing?" I asked. Russian literature was full of fever dreams, and I believed I was having one. The clarity was dazzling—two guys in blue shirts, the older one with a pale smoker's complexion and hair all neat like a little boy on school picture day. The younger one had gray eyes that betrayed a flicker of menace, as if I were the one intruding.

Startled, the older man dropped the raincoat into the suitcase.

I was shivering and drew the comforter tightly around my bare body, sleeping bag-style.

''Excuse me,'' he declared. ''We thought you were out.''

They scrambled out the door and soon I fell backwards into sleep.

The next day, while my group toured Lenin's tomb, I sat on the bus sweating, too ill to move. I had not spoken of my visitation the previous day. Many of my charges already supposed they were being watched; some were amused and some downright scared. They whispered to each other about the presumed KGB sightings and enjoyed the Cold War folklore. But they were all doctors and their American guide was sick, so they insisted on taking me back to the hotel.

I dragged myself through the lobby, into the elevator, down the hallway that was thick with the rotten-fruit smell of disinfectant. My feet carried me, quicker now, to my room, to that delicious, warm bed. The dejournaya station was empty. I had wordlessly passed her that morning, not stopping to leave my key. She had glanced up from her book and smiled, which was unusual for a key lady. I had noticed her wide-set green eyes.

And there she was, inside my room, wearing my skirt. She was curvier than I, and the waistband stretched tightly around her middle. The leather pulled across her hips sexily, as if the utterly random act of wearing a stranger's clothes gave her an air of danger and power. She held a pair of black high heels that I had packed along with the skirt—I knew I would never wear them on my tour of Moscow and Central Asia, but they were new and expensive, and I didn't want to leave them in the closet of my shared New York apartment. Her own satin blouse was unbuttoned; the frayed remains of trim drifted around the cups of her bra, which, at least a size too small, pinched her ribcage and crushed her breasts.

''Bozhe moi,'' she said. Oh my God.

''It's O.K., really.'' What else could I say to this poor, mortified creature? ''I just need to sleep.''

''Just a moment,'' she said. One at a time, with two hands, she bent to place my shoes on the floor, toes pointed straight ahead like loaves on a baking sheet.

''Just a moment,'' she repeated, unzipping with shaky fingers. I turned my head so as not to see her Soviet-issue panties, hoping at least she wore some. She nodded deferentially, her face creased with shame. In what seemed like one move, she slipped on her wool skirt and stepped into her shoes. She shuffled her breasts around, rearranging them as if to make room in her bra, and fastened her blouse.

I waved her out the door, saying, ''Don't worry, don't worry. Please!''

I scanned the room, flipped through my suitcase. Only my make-up case looked disturbed, with pencils, brushes, and compacts strewn about the dresser. Strangely, despite my exhaustion and the fever that addled my brain, I knew I wasn't angry. Rather, I pitied her embarrassment at being caught. Whoever this woman was, she was now exposed and compromised, and I wanted her to know that I, at least, didn't care.

I fell fully clothed into bed.

When I woke up, she was sitting at her station and rose to greet me when I came down the hall. She seemed taller and more beautiful, having regained her composure, and must have been twenty-five or twenty-six, a few years older than I.

''Do you want tea?" she asked.

''Yes, please,'' I answered. ''What's your name?"

''Maria Konstantinovna,'' she replied, using her patronymic rather than her last name. ''Masha.''

''I'm Marcia too,'' I said. In Russian, they sounded the same. ''Is there anything to eat?"

She walked me back to my room, where I stripped down to my underwear and slipped into bed. Soon, Masha returned with rolls, cheese, and black tea. I drifted in and out of sleep. At times, I could hear the door swish open and closed or feel her swab my face with a damp cloth. Once I sat up to sip some tea and felt her hands bolster my shoulders, brace me as I lowered myself back to the mattress, and finally tuck the covers under my chin.

''I'm not working tomorrow,'' she said. I looked at her, puzzled. ''I think you will be well enough to leave for Tashkent.''

''Thanks to you, I think I will be,'' I said.

I had not mentioned my itinerary to her, but she knew. The next day would be our last in Moscow, as we were flying to Uzbekistan the following morning. In the room, the shades were drawn. There was still daylight behind them, but I had no idea what time it was. Loud voices erupted in the corridor, and Masha stood to return to her station.

''I'll be back in a few weeks. May I bring you something from America?" I asked

She pressed the starched napkin that rested underneath the tea glass, and held her finger there while her eyes caught mine. I could see the corner of a folded square of paper, which I later slipped between my fingers and tucked into my wallet.

Within a month, I returned with another group of doctors, this time seventeen thoracic surgeons. At the airport, an agent had confiscated Vogue and Newsweek, but I still had the illustrated collection of Pushkin fairytales Masha had requested. She wanted the book, she wrote in her note, to read to her young son. At the Russian bookstore in New York City, I had easily procured what was impossible to find in the shortage-ravaged Soviet Union. Of course, I brought a few extra things—a leather handbag stuffed with lip gloss, eye shadow, red licorice. The scene had never left my mind—her open shirt, the tattered lingerie, and her eyes that shifted around mine until that moment of comprehension and convergence: had our fates been reversed, I would have discovered the Italian skirt from the depths of her luggage. And I would have slipped it on as she had done to see myself reflected, just once, in something beautiful.

Right after checking in, I hopped the elevator to my old floor and found the on-duty dejournaya.

''Is Maria Konstantinovna working today?" I asked.

''She left,'' the woman answered.

''For the day, or for good?" I asked.

''I don't know,'' she said, and turned to rearrange the keys, inviting no further questions.

Over the next six months, I was back at the hotel several times with the book in my bag, but I never saw Masha again. In the winter of 1986, I returned to Moscow, this time with an American television network. Change was afoot, Mikhail Gorbachev was in power, and glasnost was the order of the day. I was low man on the nightly newscast I worked for, but in those days it still meant I had a car and driver. Snow fell gently, unstoppably, on the black Volga sedan. My old hotel seemed closer to town than I remembered.

She wasn't there.

Rounding the circular drive to leave, I recalled a brief embrace Masha and I had shared at the end of the one day we knew each other. I had recognized her perfume—Amazone—because it had come from my own bottle.

Over the years, I returned many times to Moscow,

I went with Peter Jennings, Barbara Walters, and 60 Minutes. Each time, I packed that book of fairytales, and each time I journeyed out beyond the Space Obelisk, past the All-Russia Exhibition Center, to the ever-forbidding hotel. Always a fool's errand, to be sure. And each time I got off the elevator, I swallowed harder as I confronted the empty space she once occupied.

After an eighteen-year absence, I recently returned to Moscow. As I packed, I slipped the slim, orange book into my suitcase. I was, frankly, surprised when I found it on the bookshelf, after six moves, a couple of renovations, and decades of neglect. The stories were in Russian so I never read them to my own kids, yet there it was, shelved patiently, a talisman to guilt, gratitude, and unfinished business.

Even though Moscow had changed beyond recognition, I hadn't. Nor had the feeling of dread and sensory overload I experienced when I got to the hotel where Masha worked the day shift twenty-seven years ago. The lobby was still garish, but now it was loud with Italian cafés and gift shops selling nesting dolls and amber jewelry. A large man in a suit would not allow me to pass beyond his checkpoint to the elevators, so I went to the front desk.

''Would it be possible to go to the fifth floor?" I asked the receptionist. ''I'm researching a book.''

''You are writing something on the hotel?" she asked.

''Not really.'' I hesitated. ''Well, yes.''

''What is the nature of your project?" she asked.

''Actually,'' I said, ''years ago, I met someone here.''

Her face softened. ''I understand,'' she said, and turned. ''Just a minute.''

Within seconds, an official-looking woman approached me at the desk.

''Please leave your passport,'' she said, ''and we'll go upstairs.''

I handed it to the receptionist and was ushered past the guard.

''Do you still have dejournayas?" I asked.

''Yes, of course. It is not the same as it was. Mostly, they just take care of the floor.''

''Can we please stop on five?" I ventured. She pressed the elevator button.

''Twenty-five is the only floor non-guests may see,'' she stated.

The doors opened.

There was no sign of tape recorders, only a fancy carpet runner and an eerie stillness that bore the echo of empty rooms. There was no dejournaya, either, and certainly no Masha. As we strolled back down the corridor, I murmured niceties about the lovely, modern décor.

Back in the elevator, I took out the book and turned to ''The Tale of Tsar Saltan,'' the great writer's most famous children's story about the prince who saves the life of a swan, who in turn becomes a beautiful princess. The illustrations were simple but unremarkable, and I skimmed through the pages, stopping at a drawing of a bird flying across a starry violet sky. I closed the book and put it in my bag. It seemed that Masha had at last given it to me.

For all I knew, she emigrated, and I had passed her on a New York City sidewalk. Maybe she got sick or simply quit her job that day and was somewhere in Moscow now, her son grown. Perhaps she did vanish one night in that hazy time right before her country's sea change.

I would never find out. Masha was in my life so briefly it shouldn't have mattered. But to this day, I have not known comfort like the sound of her footsteps padding in and out of my hotel room as I sweltered with fever. I was twenty-three, in a strange land, nursed by the hands of a woman who, but for the clothes, might have been me.  

Marcia DeSanctis is a journalist and writer whose work has appeared in many publications, including Vogue, Departures, Town and Country, The New York TImes Magazine, and Best Travel Writing 2011. Formerly, she was a network news producer for ABC, NBC, CBS and Dow Jones. She is now working on a memoir.

This story, under the title "Masha," originally appeared in The Best Women's Travel Writing 2011. Copyright © 2011 by Marcia DeSanctis. Published by permission of Travelers' Tales and the author. For more information on the book, click here.

This essay recently received a Lowell Thomas Award in the 2012 Society of American Travel Writers travel journalism competition.

 

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Don George, Editor

Don George is Editor in Chief of Wanderlust: Literary Journeys for the Discerning Traveler. He has been Travel Editor for the San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle and Salon.com, and Global Travel Editor for Lonely Planet Publications. Don has published eight books, including Travel Writing, A Moveable Feast, The Kindness of Strangers, and Tales from Nowhere. E-mail him at don@geoex.com.

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