A chipped bowl from the kitchen in one hand, step into the bathtub and then into the bucket. Splash the cool water on yourself, trying to keep it all dripping back into the bucket. Step out. Lather up. Step back in. Pour strategically, starting with your head and working down. Maybe all of the soap is gone now. Maybe you are cleaner. You are reminded of Deadwood, and how this must have been quite normal for a lawless land of muck as you dump the last milky water over your head in one final splash.
For five years I have seen the hot water turned off for two weeks in August, always explained as a chance for the pipes to be checked and repaired. We live next door to one of these central heating stations with its twin chimneys. I have never seen a worker do anything different during these two weeks. The hot water works just fine before these two weeks and after. A sad, angry part of me is convinced this is just a long-standing humiliation, a fabricated hardship that reminds the people that they are nothing, that they are helpless and only the elite with custom hot water tanks can twist a knob and have a nice hot shower while we stand in plastic buckets trying to wash the stink of the streets and the metro off of our skins.
Faced with a quiet Saturday afternoon we head out, making excuses to go buy things like soap and maybe an ice cream. N arrives at the new shopping center, where a curious fire blazed one night last Spring. The parking lot is new and narrow. Paying involves just one machine, and passing the three that are broken or not turned on yet. There is a long line and often a need for exact change. Some people do not pay and just try to drive out past the guards, shouting and waving their hands as they save 100 rubles and avoid the wait.
There is a parking space just on the street, too good to be true. A line of cars are here, nestled next to each other. N peers up at the signs around us.
"Can we park here?" I ask.
Her face turns into itself. She bites her lip.
"Hard to say." She replies.
"We'll be fifteen minutes." I say, unsnapping my seatbelt.
We buy grapefruit soap. N twirls her plastic spoon in a cup of frozen yogurt as we watch a fountain dancing to music.
Back outside, her car is gone. Three or four remain where they were, around our empty parking space. A man jumps up from the curb. He has a broken, hawkish nose and a clump of white hair. His belly pokes from the bottom of his shirt. He waves a piece of paper in his hand with scribbles on it.
N tells him her license plate number and he nods, snapping the paper with one finger.
He speaks quickly. He will drive us, if we like. He knows where the car is, and where the police station is. Three thousand rubles for this, no negotiating.
N agrees quickly, and we step into the man's old Ford. It smells of cigarettes and cheap air freshener. The sagging grey seats are covered in velour that wiggles under my legs. He guns the engine, and threads through the streets. N pulls my hand to hers, pressing it in between her palms. Her face is set, looking at where we are going. I roll the window down and the old man gestures to roll it back up. He turns the A.C. on.
We listen to talk radio and say nothing for a while.
The man breaks the silence, waving one hand around wildly as he talks to her.
"What is he saying?" I whisper to her.
"Some bullshit." She says.
"You know, if we were only in there for like 30 minutes, and the car is already this far away - they had to take it right after we parked." I say.
She nods, already knowing this.
She mumbles some words under her breath.
The old man jerks his face up, looking at her in the rear view mirror.
He speaks louder, his hand waving like a seagull.
"What did you say?" I ask her.
"You should not learn this word." N tells me. "It means getting fucked in a classical way."
"That doesn't translate so well." I tell her, trying to make a joke. "That just means getting fucked in a way that isn't very interesting."
N talks to the old man now. I can make out fragments about what she says, that he is claiming to be so nice and kind but he is probably the one who saw us park there and it was him that called the police so he could then make his three thousand rubles to drive us around. He is offended, but not angry. I think he is acting. I think of the countless times I have been lied to here with this flat, plain expression, this rehearsed denial.
She sighs and squeezes my hand.
"This is going to be one expensive ice cream." I tell her. "Or some expensive soap."
The police station is guarded by young men with machine guns slung across their chests. I pass the metal detector with cameras in my bag and they do not ask to see them. There is a series of hallways, the walls warped and covered with fake wood veneer. We wait to enter room number six, and then N tells me it will be better if I do not go in with her.
I spy a young man inside, watching tv and sitting in front of a computer. A white leather holster hangs awkwardly from his belt.
N closes the door gently. I hear voices and wonder if it is the tv, or her arguing with him. The halls are littered with people who are looking for door number six. A man with a beard farts and acts like he didn't. People ask if I am next to go in. They all share the same face, that sour acceptance.
She comes back out, and goes back down the hallway, then comes back.
We leave in a few more minutes.
"That could have taken hours." She tells me quietly. "That could have taken a whole day."
The old man appears in the street, waving at us like he is picking us up at the airport. We slide back into the sagging back seat of his Ford. He has smooth jazz cranking on the stereo now.
It starts to rain.
"Good thing we didn't have a picnic." N says, leaning against me.
"So do you think he called them?" I ask her.
She shrugs her shoulders.
"He definitely makes money from this." She says. "That I can tell you."
The rain pelts down on the windshield that is cracked in at least four places. The old man talks to himself as he chugs and lurches through the traffic. We pass the church we visited some time ago, where the icon of the blind saint can be visited by anyone willing to wait in line. People are running, some with umbrellas, some without. Gypsies with babies tucked under their arms, fat men, beggars in wheelchairs or on crutches, old women, and a bride and groom in their wedding outfits. They duck into a pink and white limousine decorated with stuffed hippo dolls on the hood. N nudges me, making sure I have seen this.
The wedding party dances around the new puddles on the sidewalk, laughing and shouting.
We pass another limousine - a double tall Hummer painted gold, sloshing through the wet streets.
Far outside of the city, I cannot see any landmarks to explain where we are. We pass old buildings with laundry hanging from balconies. I think about people that appeared when I needed help here, and how later I learned that they made more problems than I had to begin with. I think of getting a parking ticket in New York, and how I would have told this guy with my license plate written down "thanks" and would have walked away. I would have solved it myself. Here, this is not possible. You have to get into the man's car that most probably betrayed you. You must get intimate with the perfume strung against his dashboard. You need to sit and pay and stare at the back of the head of the person that is saying they are helping you, when you know they are profiting, when you know they were probably sitting there when you parked and could have told you "don't park here or you will get towed". You know that you would never have found the police station, or the place they took your car without him.
No, you need to smell his cigarettes and listen to his speeches to solve this. You need to hear you are "lucky he was there". Anything but thanks makes him offended, or just act offended, all part of the game he plays, the game the police play in order to make $200 on a Saturday afternoon. We live in a country where you eat a little piece of shit every day. You don't have the time to argue about it. No, you have to get right past that urge and get to the solution. You just swallow it. If you want to argue about it, you will lose an opportunity to solve things. So, we get used to eating shit quickly here. We get very comfortable saying "it could have been much worse". The truth is, today we are pretty lucky. But the enduring truth is, we get comfortable eating shit every day.
Having people lie to you here doesn't fit some fairy tale situation of good guys and bad guys. I know in New York that the criminals know they are doing something wrong, and they are ok with that. Here, it isn't wrong to cheat and steal and lie. Its just about getting caught. It is something to joke about, as you reach deep in your pockets and see if you have the cash to get out of some situation. It is something you are not allowed to complain about.
We arrive. N goes inside. He peers through the fence.
N's car is already waiting for us. They never even brought it inside. There are yellow pieces of tape across the doors and the trunk.
"You can get those off with mayonnaise." The man announces, smiling.