One of the best things about our deceptively drab, Soviet-style building on the western edge of Vasilievsky Ostrov was that it was filled with artists. There were at least seven floors of actors, puppeteers, set designers, acrobats, dancers, and musicians, and we were all training at the Russian State Institute of Performing Arts in Saint Petersburg. No matter how hard our masters worked us at the academy, something exciting was always happening back in our rooms late at night. I was the only Amerikanka that year, and that was also pretty cool. Four months earlier, I’d graduated from UC Berkeley and put everything I had towards coming here to train, arriving with around $300 in my bank account.
I shared a small room with Dasha, a bubbly Estonian training in musical theater and comedy. Antonis the opera singer lived across the hall. We called him Kipir, Russian for Cyprus because that was where he was from. We often heard him singing passionately in the showers or in his room, his sonorous vibrato drifting in and out of the long, dark hallways. Everything about him was grand. He had bold, classic features, stood well over six feet tall—he was built like Adonis. His long curly locks would glisten as he walked back to his room after a shower, clad in no more than a white towel. He spoke Russian quite well and was extremely friendly, sometimes knocking on our door to invite us for tea or join us for a late-night snack of rye bread topped with salted fish or honey.
Apparently, I’d caught his eye the first time we’d met, but unfortunately for the both of us, I wasn’t interested. I really enjoyed his company, but something about him seemed a little melodramatic for me, and I couldn’t put my finger on it.
Then late one night, Kipir joined us and some other friends in our room for a round of drinks and impromptu performances. Igor pulled off some impressive Michael Jackson moves, Dasha did a comic bit, and then it was Kipir’s turn. He took a sip of Dasha’s sweet Estonian liqueur, stepped into the middle of the bedroom, elegantly spread his arms and began to sing: “Ma-ri-ca! Ma-ri-ca! I once knew a girl named Ma-ri-ca!…”
He belted out the entire song from West Side Story using my name in place of “Maria,” the whole while looking directly at me and smiling in a “knowing” kind of way. His voice practically melted the skin off my face as I turned redder and redder. Nope. Out of the question.
Another night, while philosophizing with Dasha about life, I began to get emotional and nostalgic in a way that only the Russian winter can make you do. I decided then and there that I needed to do something to remind me of Saint Petersburg and everything she was teaching me—something as serious as a tattoo, but less expensive.
The water heaters weren’t working again, so I took a cold shower, then ran back to my room to warm up and got out my sewing kit. I sterilized a needle with a lighter and iced my earlobe to numb it. Then I placed a tea-candle behind my ear. Looking into the mirror, I eyeballed the right spot, twisted the tip of the needle, then pressed it through the skin and into the wax. It was easy! I barely felt it. Ha!
The hard part was trying to get the earring in. After pulling out the needle, the fresh hole all but disappeared. I stood in front of the mirror for at least 25 minutes trying to find it again with the stem of the earring. The frustration was growing, I was swearing, and my ear was bleeding more and more from all the poking. Suddenly, everything began to swirl, yellow-orange blotches jumped out at me, and I fell, knocking my forehead against a table and landing in a heap by the door.
Everything went black. I could hear Dasha, a galaxy away, screaming “Помогите мне! Помогите мне! Help! Help me!” I vaguely remember being lifted by strong arms and swaying through space. Then nothing.
When I came to, I was looking up into Antonis’s concerned face. I was on my bed and he was leaning over me, dabbing my forehead with a wet towel. All I could do was groan and cover my face with my hand, my head hurt so badly. I smiled and laughed aloud in disbelief. Just admit it. You’re definitely the damsel in distress right now. And it’s kind of awesome.
Today, my right earlobe still has a small ball of hardened tissue from that failed first attempt. Occasionally, I like to pinch it and remember how once, in Russia, I pierced my own ear, fainted, then woke up in the arms of a Greek god.
Marica Petrey is a frequent contributor to California. Before leaving Russia, she had her ears re-pierced at a shop down the street from the apartment building. It took about five minutes.