Russian Exchange Student

A Short Work of Fiction

One decision can change everything.

I snuck into our cramped kitchen. My Mother’s and Father’s Russian mixed together in a fierce argument. I searched for the plane ticket Mother was taking to see her dear brother, Uncle Petr in America.

He’d lost his daughter. Did he need his sister or another daughter more?

I snuck into my room with Mother’s ticket and passport. Calling my friend, Alyosha I looked around my room one last time. A poster of New York City Uncle Petr sent us hung above my bed. It wouldn’t be a dream much longer.

Alyosha was my friend, but I wanted us to be more. Would he help me leave? Looking out my window, I called him to ask for a ride.

“I’ll drop you off. And a kiss?”

Biting my lip, I said, “Yes.”

I could make it to America. Nothing was hard about it. I put on my best dress. With my purse over my shoulder, I left the only room I’d known. Getting his text that he was waiting outside, I hoped my parents wouldn’t notice me walking out the front door with their bickering.

I got in the Taxi Alyosha drove when his Uncle was too sick to. That’s how it would be with Uncle Petr in New York, I’d drive his taxi when he couldn’t. I handed Alyosha the ticket and passport.

“You look close enough to your Mother. Say you quit smoking. Got any cash, Natalya?”

“I’ve been saving up.”

“That’s not enough.” He pulled out a wad of rubbles from his pocket. I never asked where he got the money from.

We stopped at his apartment for my luggage. We’d kept it there earlier.

We drove around before my flight. At the airport entrance, Alyosha handed over my suitcase. Tears came to my eyes. I looked around, whipping my head back and forth. That was my last chance to see Moscow.

Alyosha took my face in his hand. “Natalya, everything will be alright.”

Everything felt okay then. I kissed him on the lips. “Bye, Alyosha.”

I searched for where I needed to be. At the immigration counter, the man took my passport.

“You, thirty-eight?”

I nodded. “I quit smoking.”

“This you in the picture?”

“Need to see my ticket?” I scanned the crowd, waiting for his answer.

“Ticket.”

I handed over the ticket with all my money tucked underneath. “Please, I need to visit my Uncle. He’s dying.”

“Catch your flight.” He returned the ticket and passport, keeping the cash.

All my money was gone. I boarded the plane. A pretty college student sat down next to me, wearing better clothes than anything I’d ever owned.

The plane shook as it floated into the sky. I shook more than the plane ever did. The student, Sabina held my hand.


With the plane parked in New York, we waited for our luggage. Sabina got a pink suitcase, and mine never came.

I filled out a form for my lost luggage, putting down Petr’s address and phone number.

Borrowing Sabina’s phone, I called Petr. That wasn’t Petr’s number anymore. Sabina was the only friend I had now.

She got in a cab with me. We went to her apartment to regroup. A party was going on. People hugged Sabina right and left. We went into her bedroom, piled high with enough coat to drown. I stayed in there, while Sabina partied.

What was I doing in Sabina’s bedroom?


Sabina walked into the bedroom and shut the door.

I held my purse, shuddering — realizing that was all I had.

Sabina sat down next to me. “How old are you, again?”

“Sixteen.”

She put a cup in my hand. “Couldn’t hurt. It’s a little vodka.”

I took a sip. My tongue burned.

She looked from the cup in my hands to my face. “You could be a model.” She fell into me. In the confusion, her lips met mine. 

I was on my feet and down the stairs before I knew what was happening. Waiting in the cool afternoon, I tried to call a cab.

Sabina came out of the apartment building. “I have no idea what happened back there. I can call you a cab if you want..”

I nodded.

“Do you want me to go with?”

“Sabina, I have to do this on my own.”

Sabina went back inside.

I shivered waiting there.

A taxi pulled up to the curb. I got in and showed him the address I had for Petr.

We stopped outside an apartment building better looking than anything we had in Moscow. I told the headscarfed taxi driver I’d be right back. There wasn’t any cash to pay the man. I went down the hall to 1C and knocked. A man wearing boxers came to the door.

“Petr Petrikov here?”

“Never heard the name.”

I walked away and cried in the hallway. How could I find Uncle Petr? I didn’t have money for the taxi, either. I had to run, but where? New York public libraries — the old music played through my head. I found a way out of the apartment away from my waiting cab.

I sprinted away, still needing directions. An hour later, I saw an old Russian woman that looked like my grandmother. I told her what was going on in Russian. I rode in a cab she paid for and ended up at the library. Finding a computer, I searched for Petr Petrikov.

I knocked on Petr’s door.

He wanted to know why I’d come.

“I always dreamed of living in New York.”

He rubbed his hands down his face. “I should call your mother, send you back.”

Tears came to my eyes. “I’ll do everything you say, Petr.”

Petr turned his back to me. “Where will I get food and clothes for you?”

“I’ll work, make money.”

He sighed. “Call your mother. Tell her you can stay.”

I worked at a coffee shop and went to school.

Uncle Petr got sick. I got another job taking care of him. Sometime in the night, he stopped breathing. I got a ticket back home with money I’d saved. Alyosha was waiting for me at the airport in Moscow.

I was back with a new dream, talking Alyosha back to America with me.

GK

Exercise #5

We were asked to write a scene with specific details that would apply later on. Chekov’s gun: If you have a gun on the stage, it has to go off at some point. And the character must want something and have a weakness preventing them from acquiring it.


“Rich Sameuls, what’s a multi-millionaire doing in a warehouse with wanted felons?”

My eyes opened. Grimy floors and a ratty armchair made me want to get up. My hands tied with abrasive hemp rope kept me where I was. The smell of gasoline hit my nose and gave me a headache. My clothes were soaked through.

“Hey, Richie boy.”

I looked up, feeling weak. They must’ve heard about my recent influx of cash.

A man stood there in front of a limousine, the cigar in his mouth smelling sour and a suit too big for him — a little man trying to play it big. I needed a laugh, but a cigarette more.

“We put some bacteria under your skin. Hey, get the Doc.”

A reedy man in a lab coat was brought over at gunpoint. What a pitiful man. “You have 24 hours to live without treatment, maybe less. I beg you, give them what they want.”

“Account number, Rich.”

The money wasn’t mine to begin with. It was a dead friend’s, money owed to the Russian mafioso. Getting on their bad side meant death. “I’d settle for a cigarette. Don’t need your pesky antidote.”

“Fine, a cigarette and we leave you to the virus. Or your account number and treatment for your little problem. I have an ambulance waiting outside.”

“Can’t I have both?” I couldn’t give them the account number if I wanted to live. Nor go on living without that antidote. So many problems to deal with.  

“Get your mind onto something, Rich.” They walked into an office behind the limousine, leaving me tied to the chair — amateurs.

I pulled at the sandpapery ropes tying my hands. There was wiggle room, just enough to squeeze my hands through. A guy needed to relax before a cigarette could do any good. Anger killed the mood. If I was going to go, I’d be happy. I broke the wooden handle off the chair and broke a window on the limo with it. Working quick, I opened the trunk.

Mr. Cigar and Mr. Gun came running out.

I pulled the guns from the trunk and peppered the air with lead. Bullets flew back and forth, making a hell of a racket.

Mr. Cigar swung open a door leading outside and pulled Mr. Gun through behind him — cowards.

I ran out there with the biggest guns I could find.

My kidnappers were holed up in the ambulance. There was nothing else around for miles in the blown sand.

My leg was on fire from the bacteria eating into me.

“Last chance Rich, the antidote to your ills or death.”

“Know what I want?”

“Yeah?”

“I want a cigarette!”

I put the grenade launcher to my shoulder and fired.

An explosion filled the darkening sky.

Brushing the gasoline from my hands and face with sand, I pulled a cigarette from my pocket and lit up. With my leg killing me, I got in their limousine with the Doc riding shotgun. The driving wasn’t hard until I was crying out in pain. Turns out, I didn’t have a day.

GK

Exercise #4

We were asked to write a story less than 300 words including words from a list. The protagonist should want something and have a weakness stopping them from getting what they want.


What did it cost for a meal? Some would say a buck twenty-five, but you needed a restaurant, a place with appliances to cash that buck twenty-five. That shouldn’t have been all that hard with a forward thinking brain, which I lacked. Being in the middle of the desert did me no good aboard a car running on gasoline fumes. I hiked through the desert heat, tipping water into my mouth. The memory of water on my lips was all I had now. I schlepped through the desert heat. The heat was a tiger on my back, scratching with its claws of UV rays and sapping the life by eating away at me. A car pulled up alongside — how the angels smiled on me. A hand full of rings waved me to the door of my salvation, except her body seized and her eyes went blank.

I pushed the opposing lock free and got into her Cadillac. I searched for her pulse, and just my luck, she wasn’t pretending — she was dead. I pushed her into the neighboring seat, and I had to drive for her. Driving, looking like I owned her Cadillac was the trick, but who was I kidding when the cops pulled me over.

“I was driving her to the hospital, Officer.”

He dangled a carrot of Why don’t we call an ambulance? and quicker than that I was in the cage of the local jail.

“What’s a guy got to do for a meal?”

My stomach burned up with acid , like it was about to explode.

GK

Exercise #3

We were supposed to write a scene from the first-person point of view and rewrite it in the omniscient third-person point of view, where the writer gives the reader access to the minds of multiple characters within a single scene.


First-person:

Conversations buzzed around me as I reached into the fridge for my second and last crudité platter. All the wine we had was already in play. There wasn’t much more I could do with all the people walking in through our door. My husband was happy in a crowd, surrounded by strangers and grappling for attention. Brushing against people in the trip from the fridge to the table made me cringe. Setting down the platter and sidelining another group, I dropped into the couch to watch the game.

“Honey, could you get over here?”

Everyone looked in my direction as I waded through the crowd to his side, the receiver to his quarterback.

Dave, my husband put his arm loose around my waist. “This is Monica and her husband. They knew the previous owner.”

“Could we go outside to talk?” Getting their nods, I ushered them outside through the sliding door. I stood there with the little notebook from my back pocket to jot stuff down. I felt like a waitress.

Fifteen minutes later, their fire hose of gossip had dried up and seven pages were full of my scribbled writing. I took them back inside and found Dave sipping punch with the neighborhood Dads. Slipping Dave the notebook, I guzzled a champagne bottle into the punch bowl and the rest of the sugary tea base. Dave took my hand. We went through the party together. Here and there, I caught snippets of the game. Football wasn’t my thing. It was the way I related to people. It was my distraction from the crowd squeezed into our home.

Tired out from the social interaction, I sat down to watch the game and ate some Swedish meatballs.


Omniscient third-person:

Stephanie reached into the fridge for the crudité platter she had left. Her husband, Dave was across the room, entertaining the guest flooding their house warming party. Stephanie went through the room to set the platter were the empty one lay. She made her way to the couch to watch the game.

Halfway across the room, Dave made a discovery. Their neighbors knew the man that lived in the house a few months before Stephanie and Dave moved in. Stephanie would want a break, Dave thought. “Honey, could you come over here?”

Stephanie came over, feeling the press of the crowd once more.

“Honey, this is Mary and Chris. They knew the previous owner.”

“Oh?”

Mary and Chris nodded.

Stephanie brought them out onto the deck and took out a pocket notebook to jot down what they said. Chris hated their previous neighbor’s guts. There was a feud between them. Lawns were mowed without ownership. Sprinkler systems interwove. A few plants poisoned and trash jettisoned where it didn’t belong.

Having collected what they had to say, Stephanie passed their notes on to Dave. The punch bowl filled, Dave took Stephanie around the party, making introductions. All Stephanie wanted was a seat to watch the game. Wasted from the social interaction, Stephanie took the seat she wanted and ate Swedish meatballs. Football made talking to people easier, a common point of reference she felt awkward without.

GK

Exercise #2

Exercise #2

We were supposed to create a scene with three characters, an insider, an outsider, and an eavesdropper spying on them. Each needed a unique characterization.


Scene:

I got dressed in the locker room.

There was a note in my locker. “Someone big is coming to dinner.” What the hell? I had no idea. There was the head chef, Gustavo. His horde was a lone sous chief tonight. “Anything I should know?  Gustavo?”

“We’re bought out tonight.”

Not sure who would do that. I straightened the tables, chairs, and place settings. The table man was missing. I took his spot and waited. After a wait, I got answers.

A man walked in with a woman. I’d never met the man, but I knew him on sight. Mike Andrews. He starred in enough movies to make me giggle. It was disgusting. I didn’t recognize the woman. She wasn’t anyone famous. What was Mike doing with her?

“Reservation for Johnson — I think it’s right there in your book.”

“Sorry. What’s it under?” I flipped open the reservation book. There was a single name. Stop with the stupid already, Nona. “Follow me.” I seated them in the center.

Mike rubbed his beard. What did that mean? I gave them menus. Behind the register, I heard them.

“Is it always like this, Mike?”

“I’d have it different Sam, honestly I would, but that’s impossible now. I got lucky, being here with you after all these years as if nothing had changed at all.”

“Wine looks good to me.”

Mike waved for me.

I took his order.

“We’ll have two glasses of Riesling 01’ if you have it or your house white.”

“01’ Riesling then.” Wine poured. I stood away to wait.

“Sam, how’s life been treating you? I feel we’re so completely different now.”

“I’m happy. Everything has been great.”

“Glad to hear that’s so. My life lies plastered over the news and airways.”

“Breaking up with Gina Skarsgard. She was so pretty. And the buzz about Aforementioned.”

He waved for me and I came over.

A rub of the beard. “Gina wasn’t for me as I wasn’t for her. We diverged where it mattered most, the things we could never agree upon fueled our infatuations. It could never last Sam, nor should it. What would you like Sam, from the menu?” His bright blues eyes turned to me.

My heart beat fast. Sweat wet my palms.

“I’ll have the quail with the roasted vegetable medley as your menu presents it. And you Sam, what meets your appetite?”

“The fish, please.”

I told the chef the order. With my phone on record, I listened in. Why were they having dinner?

“I’ve always dreamed of dating you, Sam and in as many years, I never believed we would. You were the cheerleader, pretty and confident as you should be. I cowered backstage, rehearsing lines of Shakespeare and drowning my sorrows with fast food. We were never meant to be in days gone by.” Tears came to his eyes.

Sam took his hand. “We’ll never go back there.” She kissed him.

It made my lips tingle. The plates weighted my hands. I set them down.

“What’s your name, our lovely waitress?”

“It’s Nona.”

“Thank you for attending to us this evening.” Ultimate guilt trip.

I walked away. Snapping a picture, took a second. It covered the rent. It was horrible.

“What do you do with your days, Sam?”

“Work. Retail.”

“I can’t imagine how that must be for you — never had that experience myself. Worked in coffee shops while I was waiting to make it acting. So many things could’ve stopped me from making it. In the end, it was all worth it.”

“I can’t believe it’s you. You’re the Mike Andrews. And you have a crush on me? How did that happen?”

“I’m still the same person underneath this artifice that makes a famous actor. That theatre nerd is still me. Without him, there is no Mike Andrews. There was never anything there between us, and now after I’m a famous actor, you can’t keep your hands off me. It makes me think—“

“Hold on a minute. You’re using me too, baby. You want to conquer your past. You want closure. You’ve surpassed that theatre nerd. You want the Queen to prove it. I’m using you. You’re using me. Are we going to do this?”

“Sam, there’s something about you that turns me off. Maybe we’d not, hook up for old time’s sake. Ne’er-do-wells would exploit any weakness and deliver me to the public as a suckling pig to be devoured and cast as the bad boy. Serious roles wouldn’t become me. I’m sorry, but this cannot and will not work out. Nona!”

I came over.

“Can I have the bill for the dinner, Nona?”

“Coming up.” I went to get the bill, and Mike followed me.

“Wait, Mike, please.” Sam ran over. “I’ve wanted you from the seventh grade.”

“How could that have even been possible, Sam? I transferred in ninth grade, after the point you claimed to start wanting me. How do you expect me to trust you after such a bold and ridiculous lie? Come Nona, I’ll take you out for drinks, the present company excluded of course.”

Sam fumed.

I walked to the limo with Mike.

Mike waved down a cab. Sam was put inside. We walked back inside for drinks and dinner at the Chef’s table.

Mike caught me deleting the picture and recording.

“I’d rather you didn’t delete those, Nona. Allow yourself the luxury of recording on and keeping them for posterity. If not for you, then please give it over.”

“You talk like you’re two-hundred years old. Why, Mike?”

“Really, must you?”

“Exactly.”

Mike laughed.

GK

Exercise #1

I’m starting a new series on my blog featuring exercises from this Coursera Specialization I started a year ago and haven’t finished yet from Wesleyan University. Maybe this will get me to go back and complete that Specialization. We’ll have to see about that.

We were supposed to construct a character sketch based on the things a person interacts with in their daily lives. Here’s my attempt.


We were closing in a couple of minutes. There was an unattended laptop across by the window. What else could be expected in a coffee shop, a bunch of freeloaders sipping free wifi and the coffee they paid for would leave things every now and then. We were pouring the last orders. Still the laptop owner hadn’t returned for his abandoned laptop.  The clock spun out the minutes to eight. The shop emptied out, and I went around the tables, sliding trash off the tables and into the trash can in my hand.

That computer. Two chilled coffee drinks with the straws bit down.  I made my way around the room to it, stopping everywhere else on the way. The screen was on a blank page with that blinking line, waiting for something to be typed.

I put down the trashcan to study the book by the compute, Story Genius. Standing there, I could imagine him, sitting in the corner of a busy coffee shop.

I found his phone on the table and unlocked it. There was a picture of him, a thick head of hair and sharp square plastic frames for his glass. There was a woman. They were holding hands and so happy.

I called the first two numbers in the address book. Cold calling in the middle of the night? I was curious. Not desperate to return the laptop or anything like that. After a few rings each, I got an opportunity to leave messages. For all I knew, I was calling the phone in my hand.

The laptop bag occupied the opposite end of the table with the chair pushed in. I traced the power cord coming from the laptop under the table to plug-in on the opposite side.  Picking up the dated computer with the weight to match, I put it behind the counter with everything else he’d left.

The things we carried said a lot. My life was the pieces I left behind.

GK

Finding Meaning, Again.

For so long, I’ve been motivated by two principle fears — fear of failure and the fear of being alone. At various times I’ve said I’m an introvert, but I’m starting to wonder if that wasn’t fear in disguise. If I never tried to be social, I could never fail at it or prove that I’d always be alone. So far that strategy worked. I was alone.

Then, things started to change. I realized that basically every single thing I did was motivated by fear (read Defeating Codependence). That making a choice was no longer an option. That was the thing I needed to realize to radically change the way I was.

For awhile after that, I lacked the fear based motivation I’d always had. My writing practice fell apart. I stopped reading novels, reading my emails, and the blog posts I used to read. I started playing this computer game, Eve Online. Important things for my day to day wellbeing like medical stuff I do multiple times a day went on like usual. I hoped things would change, and feared they never would.

I started wanting things again for myself though after months just going through the motions. Things I’d never been allowed to want when I was motivated by fear. I started to despair that maybe it was far too late to finally connect with the person I’d buried for so long, me.

Yesterday, something happened. The best thing that happened all day was I figured out something that was puzzling me about the game I was playing, Eve Online. That made me so angry. For a long while, I couldn’t figure out why. That’s when it hit me. Through my lack of motivation, I’d abandoned the things that give my life meaning. Those things are mediation and writing and maybe gaming added in as well. Then my motivation returned. No matter the cost, I’ll do the things that make me happy, now and whenever I look back on it.

Find the thing that makes you happy right now. Do it before it’s too late. And never let anybody or anything stop you. Finding meaning and happiness is the purpose of life.

GK