Sunday Pages: "Londongrad"
A short story by Zarina Zabrisky
A million years ago, in 2011, I was the senior editor for a literary site called The Nervous Breakdown. That’s when I first became aware of Zarina Zabrisky, who is a novelist, performance artist, and writer of short stories. Unlike the rest of the writers at TNB, and unbeknownst to us at the time, she was also trained in combat propaganda, which they taught at universities in the Soviet Union, where she was born and raised.
Fast forward ten years, and here she is putting out important work on Trump/Russia, on KGB-style disinformation, on the status of Putin’s crackdown on pro-Navalny protestors. I interviewed her last year for PREVAIL. Tomorrow at 7EST/4PST, I’m joining her on a Globus Books panel, where we will interview Craig Unger, author of American Kompromat. Here is the link, where the event will be live-streamed.
(That fiction writers are among those leading the fight against disinformation, which is itself state-sanctioned fiction, is one of the many quaint ironies of the Age of Trump.)
So for today’s “Sunday Pages,” I’m featuring a brand-spanking-new short story Zarina wrote earlier this year. I hope that, ten years from now, it reads like science fiction:
The day was September 9, 2020, and I woke up at 9 am — to no sky. There was a hole, a grey, empty hole, in the place where the sky used to be. The birds disappeared and the air smelled like smoked sausages. It got darker and darker, and by 2 pm, as I was boarding the plane to fly to London, the sky looked like borscht.
As the plane rose over San Francisco, I saw dirty-yellow smoke over the hills — like an old flat pillow my cat used to sleep on when she was sick. I remembered a poem about Leningrad, the city I grew up in. Lines about the air like tar, yolk mixed in, and the streetlights glimmering like fish oil. We flew higher: dark-purple particles stuck to the window like speckles of blood. Through my mask, I smelled the stale and sour metal scent — like old pennies. We kept flying up and up. Time stalled. When the space around the plane cleared, I saw two plumes of smoke by a lake. They looked like my cat’s tail by his water dish. It was Lake Tahoe. The tails were the wildfires and my cat was dead.
Flying in COVID-time was fantastic, though. I had the cabin almost to myself, except for a person in a hazmat suit and in a snorkeling mask. I stretched out along the three seats and watched the beginning of Bladerunner. The sky in it looked exactly like San Francisco I just left. I stopped watching.
“Reason for visiting,” asked the form for the UK governmental tracking. I put “book research,” because I couldn’t say the real reasons. At customs, nobody asked me any questions — nobody was there to talk to me. I went through the electronic gates and took Tube to my Airbnb place in Chelsea. I flew in for two days only with just a backpack, so I walked down the street, in the warm sun.
I stared at the impossible: the clean window displays with pearl-gray chairs and sofas, Belgian waffles and hot chocolates, pink cupcakes, and porcelain tea-pots with tiny roses. Back home, in San Francisco, most shops and cafes closed in March — and it felt as if they closed a century ago. The windows were boarded to protect stores from looters. Graffiti covered the walls. Old newspapers blew around the streets and homeless people slept by the doorways in soiled sleeping bags. The remaining restaurants only served food to go. Some recently opened for dining outside, but San Francisco is a cold city, with gray fog flying in pieces like dog hair, piercing wind cutting through the sweatshirt to your bones. And when the air smells like barbeque from the wildfires and ashes whirl on top of the cars, eating out — well, I didn’t eat out. The last couple of months, I had dinner with my cat, watching the news, but after she passed away I didn’t feel like watching the news anymore. These were hardly news and the place was empty. I was glad I was in London.
London ignored COVID. I walked by a small park not believing my eyes: a yapping puppy, a screaming baby in a stroller, a toddler falling on his butt in the flowerbed. More dogs barking, beer bottles, ice-cream cones, a couple kissing in the grass, a mag-pie stealing a piece of shining red wrap paper, pigeons pecking on chips, a wasp on the open soda can, sunshine and blue sky — after six months of a strict lockdown, I felt like I was on a merry-go-round, with a lollypop in my hand. I was the only person in a mask and everyone stared at me. It all looked so normal and therefore was abnormal.
I slowly pulled my mask off and breathed in the warm air that didn’t smell like the whole world was on fire. It smelled like the city air smells — a bit of everything: cars, people, food, flowers, garbage, gasoline. Breathing with no mask outside felt scary and exciting, like stealing candies from the special shelf my mom used to hide holiday stuff. I knew it was bad — and I knew I could die. This was the air that killed James. He didn’t want to wear the mask because it was cutting into his ears, and then, in three weeks, he was gone. There was not much to live for, anyway, I thought, and I should at least enjoy it.
I walked by a creperie, two young women in bright sundresses drinking tea. I realized that I didn’t buy any clothes this year, not once, so when I strolled down a doll-house street to a Save the Children charity store, I went in and bought a white jacket and a pair of high heels, hardly worn — black, shiny. I put them on right away and threw out my old flip-flops. I loved high heels and had maybe a hundred pairs at home, only I had nowhere to wear them anymore. I took a selfie with The End of the World clock that ran backward and wished I could text it to James. I stopped by The End of the World Bookstore across the street and almost bought a book The Beautiful Poetry of Donald Trump that someone composed from Trump’s tweets — it was not a joke. In a fancy grocery, I bought halloumi cheese, cherry tomatoes, hummus, Italian breadsticks, truffles, a pack of champagne cans. I could never eat it all during my stay but suddenly I wanted to buy the whole world — for the first time in a long time. I felt guilty and good.
Next morning, I grabbed my backpack, and wearing my slightly wobbly new heels, and a white jacket, stopped by a beauty salon (“Hair, Nails, Skin, Let the Good Time Begin”) and had my hair and nails done, for the first time this year. I bought a Million Dollar Red lipstick, too, and went to the Thames embankment to do the first thing on my list: meet a TV crew for an interview about cyberwar, brainwashing, and Russian oligarchs in London. I talked about how apocalyptic scenes, graphic violence images, or just good old stress shut down parts of brains so people become easy targets for incepting ideas. It can be cults, ideology, or, in my case, I thought, a desire to buy stuff — I still wanted to buy grapefruit butter body cream and have a massage.
“What about the Russian oligarchs? Why do they want the West?” asked the producer.
I wanted to explain that the Russian oligarchs were once poor kids from the tar-and-yolk, fish-oil city. That city, with red banners over cracked facades, with no fine-dining outside or inside or shopping for dresses and heels, was just a phantom now, a memory. Leningrad stopped existing — if it ever really existed. I left Russia when I was very young. It changed since then, I heard. My family died, Putin ruled Russia, and there was no reason for me to go back. But, I thought, the oligarchs belonged to that old, phantom world. Like me, they didn’t have much as kids and they wanted a lot. None of us was allowed to travel or own anything. A plastic bag was a luxury — if we had one, we washed it with soap and mended the holes. A piece of chewing gum in silver foil was a treasure. The reason my mom hid those candies was that we only got a box every few months — if we were lucky. She hid butter, too. We could never dream of going to London. Or to San Francisco. So, when we grew up, no one could stop us. We were alike in that respect, we were insatiable, the Russian bandits and I. Only I just wanted to see the world and write books. In a way, I was more greedy than the oligarchs. Writers want immortality. Who was I to judge them? They only wanted to own everything material — everywhere. Everything was those toys they didn’t have as kids. One could almost feel sorry for them except they killed and stole to get the toys they wanted. The whole world became their toy.
So, yes, of course, I knew why the oligarchs owned London and tried to ruin America. Because of hunger. Hunger begets greed. And what is hunger? Hunger is the fear of empty pits, of this yearning void, of not-being. Hunger is the fear of death. I also had that material kind of hunger now — a Million Dollar Red lipstick, truffles, and heels went to fill my void, to silence this silent scream that James’ death left inside of me.
I didn’t say any of this, who’d understand me? Kids with expensive cameras recording me? The invisible audience? Who were these people listening to me, reading my stories? Did they feel the hunger? Were they afraid?
On the way back to Tube, I saw a Thai massage place and I couldn’t help it. One massage before going back to the smoke, fire, barbecued air, insanity of the “beautiful poetry of Donald Trump” and the empty pit in the armchair, the empty pit in my chest. For an hour, I sank in oil, half-asleep, half-daydreaming, seeing Russian oligarchs in Londongrad, Bladerunners, champagne cans floating in an orange-and-beet sky, the end of the world and Thailand. It was the first time anyone touched me since James died. Tears soaked my mask.
“You dry yourself,” said the massage therapist. “Me, no touch you. COVID.”
Still a bit oily, I took Tube to Green Park for my last task in London. A writer and a journalist, I made virtually no money from my writing. James left me nothing but a small debt. I ran a small side gig, selling antique books to some middle man who sold them to anonymous collectors. It wasn’t that much money and all of it was entirely legal, yet, the books could end up with the same Russian oligarchs I just talked about. I didn’t want to think about it. Does everything involve Russian oligarchs? Was I complicit? But I had it with guilt — there was just too much of it.
So, there I was, walking down the empty street between palaces and auction buildings, by a Caviar House, by a pretty old pub called Lion’s Heart and through Christie’s galleries to pick up leather-and-bronze bound 17th century illuminated Bible, the first edition of Nabokov, and a book of Mandelstam’s poems. I opened Mandelstam. The pages were yolk-yellow, glossy. Leningrad, Leningrad, I still don’t want to die.
“Are you finding everything all right, Madame?” asked the auction lady.
In the lobby, I took off my face mask, reapplied the lipstick, and put on my sunglasses. I thought of fallen empires and hunger, and I thought of James, who died alone in the hospital, plastic mask over his face, and of my cat who died in my arms. Death was everywhere: empires, people, pets. We all marched into that void and, yet —
A plastic bag worth about fifty thousand dollars in my hand, my backpack on my left shoulder, I stepped outside. Across the street, a few drunk men smoked by the Lion’s Heart pub. They whistled. One, in a suit and a shirt open at his chest, crossed the street.
“Are you looking for me, love? Would you like a hand?”
He grabbed the bag’s handles. I pushed him aside, pulled the bag away, and rushed forward. The men across the street laughed. As I ran, my backpack slid down, my foot — still slightly oily — slipped, my ankle twisted, and my charity store heel broke. The sole of the shoe fell off and flipped on the pavement like a dead fish, belly up, a red sticker 5 pounds on the gray asphalt. I took off my second shoe, fixed my backpack, hugged the bag with the books to my chest, and leaving the shoes by the curb, walked barefoot. And it was then that I realized: I was free. I was free, alive, and good to fly anywhere I wanted. Somewhere, where there was a sky — Thailand, maybe.