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Foreign Exchange

22, alone and 4,500 miles from home

Imagine her: 22, attractive, alone, more than 4,500 miles from home. In a country whose native language is not hers. In a city of five million. On a Metro nearing midnight.
    She exits the Metro and, to ease the long climb up the escalator at Gorkovskaya Station, shoves her folded umbrella into the side pocket of her duffle. She enters a moonless night, the White Nights of early summer a memory. Not far from the Neva, she crosses Kirovsky Prospekt bound for Malaya Posadskaya Street and the apartment house — built for socialist-realist artists in the 1930s — where she stays with her host family, a mother and daughter.
    An arched entryway for cars, with a door to the right, pierces the bottom floor and leads to a center courtyard beyond.
    No incandescent bulb lights the archway, and she uses her feet like the antennae of a cockroach, feeling for the potholes she knows are there. She’s come home late before and expects, like those other times, to be alone. But as she emerges into the courtyard, hangs right to pass through the tall double doors into the foyer, she sees a man standing against the wall midway up the wide staircase.
    He has wavy, dark hair, a bit wild, a slight mustache, dark eyes, like a twist between Charles Manson and the man in a white van who inhabited her fourth-grade nightmares. She doesn’t recall ever seeing him, but plenty of people she’s never met live in the building and she wants to assume the best about people.
    She gets midway up the stairs:
    “Dyevushka,” the man says to her. Young lady.
    “Da?”
    “Kotory chas?” What time is it?
    “Nye znayu,” she says. I don’t know. “Polnoch?” Midnight?
    Her Russian’s pretty good. She’s been told she could pass for a Russian-speaking Estonian.
    She climbs past him and steps into the lift. He approaches. But he doesn’t get on. At the door, he reaches out for her.
    In that moment, time slows. The white noise in her mind puckers into a blank screen and she doesn’t quite understand what’s happening.
    “Chto?” she says to him. What?
    If, in her mind, she’s been over a thousand times what she would do in such a situation, all of that vanishes. Only one faint thread exists: a will to live.
    “Tikho,” he says. Quiet. And reaches for her right breast.
    “Chto?” This time, she says it louder.
    “Shhh … tikho,” he says and starts to touch her chest.
    And quicker than all that’s passed, she feels a surge, beginning in the balls of her feet, coursing through her body and stopping at her throat.
    In perfect English, she explodes: “You a******!”
    Just as quickly as the surge roared up, the man pulls back and runs down the steps.
    She slams her thumb against the five button. The weak and the strong mingle in her body until she can discern no difference. There’s no time to exhale, yet she’s panting: Can this lift be any slower? Hurry up. Hurry up. Hurry up. She fumbles for the apartment key. She fumbles for the umbrella, another weapon in the arsenal of fist, elbow, knee and foot. She cannot unpocket it fast enough.
    Fifth floor. She dashes to the door, trying to steady herself and steady the key. Has opening a door ever taken so long? Finally she’s in. She closes the door quickly yet firmly in case the Manson look-alike is making his way up the stairs. She locks it quietly, leaves the lights off, places her duffle down gently. She sees the family dog Karena, a silhouette in the kitchen doorway, and crouches to embrace her.
    Still, she listens for feet on the stairs. She waits this way for what seems hours, and only then, after hearing nothing does she cry into the coat of the knowing Karena.