plain china: best undergraduate writing

Volume One : Issue One

Alexandrovsky Park


by Rob Madole

Radio Towers and Monuments by Aislynn Neish Radiotowers and Monuments by Aislynn Neish

I’ll submit that it was the first time I had ever gone crazy. Or the first time I actually felt that I had no control over my own mind. That’s being crazy, right? I was lying awake at some ungodly hour after midnight, and it was still light outside because it was a White Night in St. Petersburg, when I realized that I couldn’t control my own thoughts. It was the mosquito that really convinced me. I had killed him five times before I realized that he couldn’t be real, that I should probably just turn off the lamp, lie down, and stop worrying about his buzzing in my ear, since it wouldn’t go away even if I killed him again.

My rollout bed was very uncomfortable. It was split into thirds by these hard wooden boards, and my mattress was too thin to cushion the rifts between them—the third above my shoulders was way higher than everything else, and it made my neck hurt. After a while, I had begun to think that this night might be permanent—that St. Petersburg twilight, masquerading as nightfall, was all that was left to me in the world. Eventually, I even stopped noticing the bed, or it just separated itself from what I could conceive of spatially. The convulsing itches and the draft making the door rattle were my only anchors to the physical realm, and during the moments they’d phase in and out of my perception, it became hard for me to differentiate what separated waking life from dreaming life. Or rather, I became slowly convinced, as each insomniac night bled into the next, that the two were no different.

So it had happened that my waking life in Russia for those first few weeks seemed to be only an accessory to the life I was leading at night, in my brain. It’s hard now, sorting through my memories of the time, to know how much of it was real, all things considered. Maybe being crazy was just believing that the distinction didn’t matter.

But before we descend the impossibly deep metros of St. Petersburg, before we amble through the dingy park where the animal tamer is leading a baby bear on a leash, before we traverse her dank streets, all pulsing to the impossible brightness of a manic White Night and the strange accordion sounds and harsh consonants of Russian summers—before we bother with the story, I’d like to assure all concerned that my madness ended the afternoon after Natasha left for Vienna. It was the most terrifying of my waking dreams. I had spent my afternoon in a café, getting drunker than is appropriate during the daylight hours, and decided to take a nap so that I could get even drunker that night. I thought I was in love with her, you see, and it felt right to go through all the motions of bereavement. But when you haven’t been sleeping for a month, naps don’t work regeneratively; it seemed that even before I laid my head on the pillow, my brain had taken off on its own. I then went through something decidedly different from the experience of a nightmare, and all the visual clichés that you would associate with it; the dream was more of an impression, a wordless thought, as if my insides were trying to vaguely assert something—it made me feel, quite tangibly, my own mind’s authority over me. It took me, in wakeful consciousness (which those who’ve had night terrors know has a different, less spectatorial quality than nightmare consciousness), through featureless corridors, down septic hallways that I can’t remember, and all the way up to the brink of some void. It’s pointless to try to describe how I experienced the void, sensually; what’s more important is that my mind managed to encounter it sensually at all; that is, though the void had no physical qualities, I could look into it without suspending any disbelief; whatever I was staring into seemed to fit into my catalogue of senses. I stood in the face of it, and it broke over me in peals like thunder, reverberating there where my heart was beating, and I found myself screaming as if to give it all shape. “It’s meaningless. It’s all nothing!” And I realized then that my eyes were open, and had been the whole time, and I was screaming gibberish out loud in the middle of the afternoon. The fever broke. The sweat on my forehead beaded and grew cold. It was all over, and that night I finally slept in peace.

But the story I want to tell happened before those times had ended, while I was still insane, before I ever thought I was in love with Natasha or had even met her. With that in mind, it’s hard to say how much of it happened or not. For now let’s just call it real, and accept that at the time the word meant nothing to me anyway.

I was sitting on a bench, in Alexandrovsky Park, in St. Petersburg, late on a summer night, thinking about Russian winters. I was imagining (considering how crazy the sun never setting was making me feel) how the darkness and foreboding of black winter days would terrify me, what it would feel like to go crazy to the sound of just-since-barren tree limbs rattling their skeletal forearms at you as the wind whistled in the total dark of midafternoon (for Petersburg winters are as dark as the summers are bright—one feels lucky, it is said, to receive an hour of sunlight). It struck me that nature in Texas, even at its most extreme, doesn’t position itself diametrically against you like it does in Russia. The heat at home, as it drenches and stifles you like a huge burlap sack drawing tightly over your head, is extreme in a dispassionate way; that is, if it seems to be stifling and drugging you, it’s only so it can carry you from desert into air-conditioning with less protest. It’s a weather that removes you from your mind, makes you dull to it, like a drug or some mind-numbing antidepressant, so your unconscious body can attend to the task of managing to keep standing in the heat of the sun.

In Russia the weather isolates you in your mind. Being there is being consumed in discomfort, being trapped in the conduits of your brain and its spiteful machinations. That’s why they’re all crazy. In Russian, the word is sumashedshiy. It means, literally, to step down from your brain. You can stay trapped in it as it spins out of control, or you step down from it and become senseless, and I was beginning to realize that in Russia even if you didn’t choose the latter, it would step down of its own accord—and either way you were in the same boat I was in.

Thinking about Russian winters in the summer I was sitting on a bench in Alexandrovsky Park, when a man sat down next to me and said something that I couldn’t understand. I told him I couldn’t, and he was surprised, and he asked me where I was from, which I managed to explain after a few tries. I heard him say George Bush, and I affected a laugh as he pantomimed a cowboy hat. He said things and I listened, chipping in the filler words I could to sustain the conversation, but understanding very little. I heard him say, —They are beautiful girls, by which I assumed he meant the two girls on a bench across the promenade from us. They were—I had been trying to make eye contact with one of them the entire time I was talking to this guy distractedly, because he was clearly very drunk and it never feels right to look a drunk man directly in the eyes. The girl had noticed me and dropped her eyes, but I couldn’t tell if she was being suggestive or not, so I looked at my drunk friend instead, flashing back at her neurotically every few seconds afterward. She was still looking down. —Da, da, I said. Yes, they’re beautiful.

As if in response to what I had just said, he took out his phone and called somebody, winking over at me during the pauses of the ensuing conversation. When he was finished, he smiled, leaned back, and said something that I couldn’t understand. I smiled back at him, less gregariously than he had. He was beginning to make me uncomfortable.

After a few minutes, two girls walked up. One was beautiful. They both hugged him, the pretty one first, and he gave her the same smile he had given me. Eyebrows knit, like a wink. Teeth all crooked. I began to be worried I was dreaming him. He introduced the girls to me, and I suddenly realized that the situation was different than I could have ever really anticipated. One was beautiful, and they were both about my age, and they were both lidding their eyes suggestively at me. And I think I knew right then what was going on.

You’re American? They said, in Russian, and I nodded, smiling. I was always smiling at these people. I suppose it’s my simian way of ingratiating myself. The pretty one sat down next to me on the bench, but only the uglier one talked. And while she was talking about something I don’t remember, it struck me that Sveta—Sveta was the pretty one’s name—had eyes a remarkable shade of blue, almost purple, and they were both fixated on me, and she was smiling provocatively, which made me nervous. I decided to make eye contact with the uglier one instead.  But every lull in the conversation I’d gnaw at my nails and glance over for a moment at Sveta, whose eyes always seemed to have narrowed further into mine.

We hadn’t been talking for long before the drunk man abruptly stood up, grinned at us all, shook my hand theatrically, and left. I felt uncomfortable. But he was gone, and I was with two girls on a bench in Russia in the hours approaching midnight, and it was still bright as day outside, and since I was getting drunker with every beer and really concentrating now on the ugly girl (as if to stave off my obvious attraction to Sveta, toward whom I was directing a determinedly platonic expression), my Russian was getting better and better as we spoke. Every time I completed a grammatically correct sentence or communicated a complete thought, I felt the utilitarian thrill a child must feel learning language, but the incentive this time was not a diaper change or a spoonful of apple gruel, but that when I said something correctly I could feel a filament of elemental understanding crackling in the air, as if the mundane pleasantries I could barely articulate were illuminating a universal syntax of mutual attraction. At a certain point, even though the ugly girl was talking, I felt the conversation was only taking place between me and Sveta; when we spoke in response to the ugly girl, we were talking more exclusively, almost quieter, as if to push her away. Even our posture was aligning with each other on the bench—my body was contorted perpendicularly to the rail so I had a better angle to frame her face in my vision, and she had brought her knees up on the bench, tucked under my arm. Her eyes were almost purple, and I could see the veins of her pale neck pulse every time I made her smile. The corners of her eyes were always smiling, but when her lips tried to follow suit they couldn’t communicate the happiness she was trying to emote; her smile was perfunctorily sensual, as if challenging me to press my own lips over them and take her breath in mine. She was a hooker, after all.

The metro is closing soon, said the ugly one. The subtext was obvious, but in the event I was too dense to understand, it was supplemented by the hand Sveta placed delicately on my upper thigh.

Sveta was considering me. —So what will you do tonight, William? She asked. My agitation increased in proportion to the leering suggestiveness of her smile.

I don’t know, I replied, head-swimmingly. What’s there to do in St. Petersburg?

I don’t think the ugly one could tell that my answer was me being terrified. That the latter had been asked, in fact, quite literally. She thought it was some kind of sexual overture. She had been trained to.

I was having sex with the ugly one, and she was kind of clutching my neck. It was terrible. Her eyes were lolled back, her mouth gaped open, her hair was all damp, and I could see her tonsils (a part of the anatomy that’s always made me uncomfortable) through the gaps of her teeth. I realized, suddenly, that I was having a nightmare, and I felt stupid for being afflicted by this perverse wet dream, a captive audience to some farce of my adolescent delusions that my mind was putting on for me. I tried to open my eyes and get out of it. But even when I had opened them, the dream scene played out behind my head, ready to snatch back control of my consciousness the moment I closed my eyes again. I could still feel the heat I had imagined from her mouth as she brought it to my ear and let out a dark moan—the sound lingered there. It was clear that my mind wouldn’t let me escape her, so I closed my eyes and let the stand-in who my mind had cast have its way with me. I woke up in my room, alone and embarrassed, and damp in my boxers.

It was dark outside, which meant it was a few hours after midnight (and the sun would be coming up any minute). I hadn’t been asleep very long. My insides were jittery and pulsive, as if some dull and distant metronome were keeping time within. Despite myself I reached for my phone; even though I hadn’t gone home with them that night, I had given them both my number. It was stupid, but the thought had given me a thrill then, when Sveta had been making eyes at me, and something in me couldn’t resist the thought of trolling a hook through this illicit world that was all so alien to me. So I had bid goodbye, given them my phone number and walked alone to my apartment as the daylight finally began to be displaced by dusk, my walk home lit by the hazily contoured velvet evening that settles over Petersburg at midnight. As I fell asleep, the light was filtered a dark shade of oceanic blue through my shutters, and I drifted into my nightmare as the dark finally began to ebb over me.

When I woke up, my phone had a message on it from a few hours ago. In English. ­Where you are William? I didn’t recognize the number, but I was sure it was Sveta. Her face diffused over my thoughts, displacing whatever internal determination I had left. I would call her.

A woman with a deep and throaty voice answered, a voice that sounded like a serial killer’s or a kidnapper’s. It had that muffled, hoarse tone you imagine they summon when they’re trying to threaten someone. It obviously wasn’t meant to be scary. I think her voice caught in her throat as she was trying to sound sexy.

Hello? I said.

She was talking quickly in Russian, and from all that she said I could only make out the word “park.”

Who is this? I asked.

Galya! She breathed so heavily into the receiver that the syllables were engulfed in static.

Galya? I asked. I realized I was talking to the ugly one. Who is Galya?

From the park! She said, and then more Russian that I couldn’t understand. Was this me who was talking on the phone? I stuttered for a moment. I was having trouble remembering where I was.

You are hearing me, I said (my grammar was terrible then). You are hearing me. I am difficult to talk on phone in Russian. Maybe we are talking on text message? I hung up the phone and waited. My heart was beating very fast by the time the message came.

“Come to the park I will be waiting there for you.”

“Are you with Sveta?” I answered.

The next message was in English, in capital letters. “YOU NO LIKE SVETA YOU LIKE ME.”

I was very unsettled. My lack of sleep, the dream, her throaty voice…I remembered the feel of her tongue in my ear when I had dreamed it, her moan that still lingered darkly in my head. A mosquito was droning, and a car alarm blared outside my window. Someone shouted at it to fuck off. I didn’t respond to her.

I met Natasha a few days later. She was a student. She studied languages. She spoke English. There’s a lot I could say about her, but when relationships are tempered by real life, when the veneer of mythology is shuffled off and you’re forced to acknowledge another consciousness operating somewhere inside, there’s a lot less you can generalize about a person’s character. The more you know someone, the less you can say specifically about them. Sometimes I found myself mesmerized by some feature of hers, and I would begin the whole rigmarole of dissecting her and the contingencies of her life and abstracting it into some meaningful archetype of Russianness.  But more often than not, we would drink coffee and talk, or walk along the Neva River, and unreflectively enjoy one another’s company. She isn’t a story, after all. She’s a person.

We were sitting at a table in the back of a bar when a number I didn’t recognize began to ring on my phone. Russians’ cell phone numbers are always changing because phone cards are so cheap. So I answered.

William, said Galya’s voice. I think I spoke some garbled Russian in reply.

Where are you William? Her voice was so stuffed with breath that it sounded pixilated, and for the rest of the night it settled in my ear canal like a persistent static. I hung up on her.

She called back immediately. I didn’t know how to silence the phone since the keys were all in Russian, so I had to make up some prevarication for Natasha’s sake until it stopped ringing. It must have been the wrong number, I told her.

Your Russian is so very bad that I find it so, you know, funny, Natasha said. I liked the way she enunciated. Her cadences always rose at the ends of her clauses, like she was constantly posing a question.

Galya called again. Under the table, I took out the phone’s battery.

As I walked home that night the sun was already rising. I didn’t manage to fall asleep, of course. Galya’s voice had replaced the mosquito in the echo chamber in my head.

As my dreams had determined to concern themselves chiefly with smut, it bothered me that they wouldn’t at least let me have sex with Sveta. Instead I had Galya to populate my subconscious—she was becoming an almost nightly fixture in my increasingly vivid dreams. The word dream, however, is inadequate for what was taking place; unfortunately I don’t know a word that approximates the experience I would have at night. The visions playing involuntarily in my head would transpire at the same time I could hear angry Russians outside my window throwing rocks at a car whose alarm wouldn’t stop blaring—as if my hearing in the real world had no relation to the visions in my head, and the two senses were operating completely separately at the very same time. I would interact with people in my dreams whom I had entirely forgotten—resequenced by my imagination, unbidden, and performed in pantomime by my subconscious—at the same time I heard, in wakeful consciousness, a mosquito droning in my ear canals and felt his stinger sinking into my neck. And when I would open my eyes, the thought of me flickering through the slipstream of someone else’s consciousness, the way Galya had flickered through mine, terrified me; I worried that I was also burrowed somewhere inside everyone I had ever known, that in their dreams I was being recalled as myself, whole, complete. I felt condemned to spending the rest of my life if not in my own insomnia, then pantomimed in someone else’s.

One night, I tried calling the number Sveta had given me, but nobody had picked up. Galya, on the other hand, was calling me multiple times every day and bombarding me with incoherent text messages, which I could ignore for the most part unless she happened to switch to a new phone number. One such occasion happened late at night. For some reason, I didn’t hang up immediately. I guess I was beginning to feel like we were friends.

William, I would like to see you, she said, after pleasantries had been exchanged.

It would please me very much to see you too, I found myself saying. Maybe you, me and Sveta can talk in the park again.

Maybe that isn’t what I said. It is what I tried to say, at least, in my mangled Russian. Nothing in her response indicated that she hadn’t heard me say “Sveta.”

Yes? We go to Alexandrovsky Park in thirty minutes?

And Sveta is coming, right?

Okay, she said. I see you at the park.

The sun was already rising—deep velvet had coated the horizon syrupy, pushing out the dark. It had to be about four in the morning. Time, like everything else here, didn’t mean anything to me anymore. And I wasn’t going to be able to go back to sleep, anyway.

The streets were empty and dreary in the pallid light that would, in a normal part of the world, precede wakefulness. The kind of light that brings out the piss residue on the sidewalks, that illuminates everything it touches in a stale lustre, presaging the day to come. I couldn’t have known then that the streets I was passing would hold a hidden significance for me, or that I’d revisit them often in pale dreams whose recollection produces a better facsimile of the place than my actual presence there managed to. I don’t remember what I looked at, or thought about, or what path I took walking to the park, whether I was plagued with misgiving or consumed with lust, or whether I had any emotions one should feel in such a circumstance. There were my feet underneath, the sensation of movement, scattered thoughts, and I was there, at the park. I saw Galya sitting alone on the bench.

I paused a distance from her. I was standing near a gaudily colored caravel, where yesterday a monkey in overalls had danced for money. She couldn’t see me from where I stood. The park was completely empty. And she hadn’t brought Sveta.

I looked at her. Her hands were folded in the paunch of her lap, and she was staring straight ahead, unblinkingly. She breathed in heavy breaths that made her bosom quiver. Her leg shook to some tune in her head, and her lips were moving, as if mouthing words. In another time, I thought, she might have been considered beautiful. It wasn’t her face that was ugly; it was actually rather pleasant-looking, sort of cherubic, like the face of one of the anonymous angels in the background of an old master’s painting. She wasn’t used to being stared at, and that suddenly seemed nice to me for some reason, and I had this urge to paint her, to isolate her from the park, from the caravel, from whoever she was and whatever she did, from this tired effigy her personality had grown to inhabit over time and through circumstance. To present her alone to the world on an empty canvas in painterly verisimilitude, sitting on the bench with her hands folded over her belly, gazing expectantly across the empty promenade.

But I’ve come to accept that reading pathos where it isn’t written really stems from my own vanity—as if I were given the clairvoyance to divine a whole story from a single frame. And besides, I was so tired. I left her there, on the bench, and I walked to my apartment to fall into a deep sleep.

Galya called me regularly and obsessively for the next few weeks, for the duration of my insomnia. Sometimes she would call as many as eight times in a row, almost daily. I couldn’t imagine what about me compelled her to keep calling, and in my worst moments of self-absorption, I imagined that she was following me, or that when I got home, she would be waiting outside my apartment..

Months later, I saw her in a metro station, and I was so dumbstruck that, as I stared, I made eye contact by accident. But she didn’t even recognize me. She smiled self-consciously, with a studied voracity, as if she had been practicing in front of a mirror for a long time but still couldn’t displace her self-awareness. It all seemed fitting, somehow. In dreams I kept having sex with her, and afterward I couldn’t stop hearing her voice slurring in my ear.

I had other dreams until she left me alone. They all came after I had spent the night thrashing on my foldout bed, my consciousness flickering from the mosquitoes gnawing at me down through the floor out onto the street where someone was bashing a car in because its alarm wouldn’t go off of its own accord. In one dream I was in Natasha’s apartment, which I’ve never seen, and we were baking Thanksgiving turkeys.

In another I was on a beach going home, sounds of surf in my ears and the ocean pulsing like the world’s heart sloshing. I was hearing sea sounds, sand underfoot, trying to sequence it all, but I couldn’t place a gentle breaking sound that reverberated in my head like song…why that sound of that distant crash of that water and why does it feel like home? And standing there on the beach, my body draped uncomfortably on a hard bed in Petersburg, as it all conflated I felt there was nothing of myself to have to make sense of anymore…or rather, drifting into dream, finding another empty slate for another iteration of myself, I was leaving all the others behind.

About the Author


Rob Madole

Princeton University

Rob Madole is a senior majoring in German at Princeton University. He was born in Dallas, Texas.