By April, I had not seen leaves, flowers, or grass above a frozen Russian ground. My Russian boss refused to pay me, so I found a job in Turkey.
“It will be sunny in Istanbul,” I thought as I boarded the train from Samara to Moscow one last time. I walked down the platform and watched snow blow across black tracks. It was almost Easter.
I had just enough money for a cheap ticket. My bunk was with a group of Uzbekistani construction workers in the open wagon. They kept staring at me with dark eyes half hidden under dark hair. I looked like a Russian woman: tall, blonde, blue-eyed, my skin pale without the Southern California sun. When I spoke, they could tell I was American, and I felt like a target.
But as the train crossed the first bridge over the icy Volga, my heart filled with joy, and I began talking with one of the men.
He told me about his pregnant wife and how he was leaving his village for work in the city. When he mentioned his wife, his voice turned dark, and he banged his hand on the table. I should have been more careful. He asked why I traveled alone. We were sitting across from each other at a little table between the bunks. His friends were watching and laughing.
“Tell me your age,” he commanded in Russia.
“Nyet (no),” I replied.
“Show me your passport,” he required.
I shook my head.
Suddenly he was on top of me. I felt his weight upon me, his hot breath on my cheek. His hands reached into my jacket pocket for my passport as his friends continued to watch and laugh.
He held up my passport and tried to tear it in half, and I understood that Americans are hated throughout the world for the dark blue books we hold with a silver eagle stamped on them.
“Na pomish (help)!” I screamed. “Nyet!”
There are advantages to being a big woman. Somehow I wrenched my passport from his small hands, pushed him away, and ran down the wagon aisle to the Provodnitsa’s compartment. I was shaking and crying as I explained what happened and begged to be locked inside. We were half an hour out of Moscow. This shouldn’t have happened in daylight on a crowded train.
She patted my shoulder and let me sit by the window behind a locked door while she called the Moscow police. They would meet me at the station. I would identify my assailant who would beg for mercy, but I would press charges because he had probably done this before and would do it again. Without a trial or a judge, he would be sent to a Siberian work camp, and I would miss my plane.