Lights All Night Long - Lydia Fitzpatrick


The air in the Baton Rouge airport tasted like toothpaste. Chemical-tinged and cold enough to give Ilya goosebumps, to make him wonder where he had left his winter coat, whether it was somewhere in the Leshukonskoye airport or wadded in the backseat of Maria Mikhailovna’s car or still at home on the hook that had given it a permanent hump behind the collar. Up ahead, through a set of glass doors, his host family—a man, a woman, and two girls—were holding a poster that said ILYA ALEXANDROVICH MOROZOV in cramped letters. His name was surrounded by hollow red hearts. The poster was too small to be held by four people, but they each gripped a corner determinedly. Ilya walked past them. He felt their eyes move over him, and then on to someone else, and all the while he kept his face vacant and slack.

Behind them was a row of baggage carousels, but only one was moving. Ilya stood by it and waited for his army duffel to emerge. The bag had been Vladimir’s. It was the one Ilya and his mother had brought to the clinic, stuffed with gauze and ointment and a plastic bedpan. Now everything Ilya owned was inside—his clothes, a book of English idioms, his Learn English: The Adventures of Michael & Stephanie tapes, and his tape player. The duffel was half empty. He’d told Maria Mikhailovna that everything inside was worthless, but still she’d written his name on a baggage tag in the same careful letters that she used to correct his translations. Then she’d swaddled it in plastic wrap, murmuring about what thieves the baggage handlers were, about how Leshukonskoye was bad, but Moscow was worse, and who knew about America. When the bag finally circled, the plastic wrap was in tatters, clinging to the old hammer-and-sickle pins that Vladimir had stuck in the canvas. Ilya almost smiled, wondering what, if anything, they’d bothered to steal. More likely they’d looked inside and known instantly that he was too poor to steal from.

Ilya headed for the bathroom. He had to walk by the host family again, and he allowed himself a longer look this time. Maria Mikhailovna had told him that they had three daughters, and all winter he had imagined them: three girls, each more beautiful than the last, like in a fable. But there were only two girls, knobby and prepubescent, with long, lank hair and rabbity eyes. The man was tall, the woman short, and they both had bodies like matryoshka dolls, like all of their weight had sunk into their hips and asses. They weren’t fit. They weren’t tan. They could have been Russian.

Outside the bathroom, Ilya fished in his pocket for a coin before realizing that peeing was free here and that he didn’t have any American coins anyway. The stalls smelled like lemons. Each tile was perfectly bright and white. He took a long piss. The family would either wait or they wouldn’t, and he didn’t feel especially tied to their decision. He pumped the soap dispenser a dozen times, just to see if there was any limit to how much soap one could take. There was not. The dispenser kept dutifully squirting pink gel until his palm was full. He washed his hands, smearing soap all the way up to his elbows, and he had to rinse for a long time to get rid of the suds.

As he pulled a wad of paper towels from the dispenser, a sonar noise filled the bathroom. A sound both underwater and electronic. Ilya pinched his nose and blew hard out of his ears, thinking that the noise was in his head, that his internal pressure might still be out of whack from the plane, but the noise gathered strength and resolved into a stuttering human voice. Ilya’s English was good, but these words were hesitant and mangled. It took him a minute to realize that the voice was speaking Russian, not English, was hacking away at the same series of syllables, and that those syllables were his name. There was a pause, a static silence, then the voice asked him to come to the information desk by the Budget Rent-a-Car.

The family huddled under the orange fluorescence of the Budget sign. This time Ilya lifted a hand in greeting. As they recognized him, confusion tangled the adults’ faces. The man gave Ilya an embarrassed smile and held out his hand, and Ilya could feel him pocketing his hesitation.

“Zdravstvuyte,” the girls said, in