“You haven’t read me my rights! I want a lawyer! I want a phone call! I’M AN AMERICAN!”
“Na kaleni, suka!”
The guard smacked me across the face, and I fell back on my cot. My head still throbbed from the policeman’s initial beating at my arrest. I could actually hear my eyes move when I looked off to the side, like sand pouring out of a bucket. Now I felt a burning numbness on my cheek. My mind began to drift. Focus, focus.
I’d been falling in an out of consciousness since they brought me in. I remembered the beating at the demonstration, male voices holding me up while a pair of hands glided slowly over my breasts and hips in their version of a “body search,” and screaming for my belongings as they grabbed my purse.
I rubbed my cheek. The memories rushed back in bursts of motion, like pages in a flipbook.
Standing alone in the middle of the cell facing five female prisoners.
One woman spoke English. Her name was Sveta.
“Please tell the guard I’m an American. Please tell him I want a lawyer. They can’t understand me,” I pleaded with her.
“It won’t do any good,” Sveta said.
Banging on the cell door, and the gruff voice of the guard on the other side.
“What did he say?” I asked.
“He said, ‘go to hell.’”
The next thing I knew, I was in the canteen staring into a bowl of watery cabbage soup, and I didn’t remember how I got there.
But I’d awakened an hour ago, and for the first time felt clear-headed, so I’d made one last plea. The slap was the guard’s response.
The left side of my face swelled.
The guard stood inside the cell, handing out the mail. I lifted my head. “Tell him when I get out of here, I’m going to sue. I’m going to sue the entire country of Belarus. They can’t treat an American this way.”
Sveta shook her head and leaned toward me to whisper. “No. No more. You have to stop. Next time, he’ll kill you.”
As the guard read off the inmates’ names, I struggled to sit up. I knew catastrophes awaited me in life. I could get a divorce; I could end up penniless on the streets; God forbid I could lose a child. But to end up in a Belarusian jail? Twice in two days? Not even remotely within my realm of possibility.
As my mind cleared, I checked my body for broken bones. Besides a raging headache and some bruises, nothing seemed to be permanently damaged. I wasn’t sure how long I’d been in the cell. Days, a week? I’d asked Sveta when I woke up.
“I don’t know day and night anymore,” she said. “The guards keep the light on at all times to fool us.”
Even if we could see daylight, there was no window from which to view it–just four gray concrete walls, a concrete floor, and one heavy, steel door that boomed like a thunderbolt when it closed.
Our beds were wooden planks with no mattresses or sheets and blankets, and I still wore the clothes I was arrested in. The cell was either freezing or stifling hot, with no in between. There was one sink next to the “toilet,” a pan built into the floor. Since my arrival, I couldn’t recall anyone showering. At least, it didn’t smell like anyone had showered. Body odor, urine, excrement, vomit and cigarettes, the stinks burrowed underneath my skin like a tick.
I closed my eyes to steady the pounding in my head. I heard murmurings from neighboring cells and the steady low hum of a group singing from a cell far away. I tried to concentrate on the sound. It was soothing, like monks chanting.
“Svetlana.” The guard called, and Sveta reached over to accept her package. I focused on remembering more of Sveta’s and my conversations. She’d studied in Chicago for two years before moving back home to Minsk.
“Olga,” said the guard and threw her a letter. “Natalya.” Natalya got a package.
Sveta had told me that she, Olga, Natalya, and now me as well, made up the “politicals,” the activists. Our cell housed the “politicals” plus two murderers, because according to the KGB scale of justice, our crimes carried equal weight.
I saw a resemblance between Sveta and my daughter, Hannah right away. Sveta was only a few years older and had the same intensity and tough exterior. But Sveta was a skinny little thing, a waif with large hungry eyes. If she were one of Hannah’s friends, I would have force-fed her brisket.
On the other hand, Olga and Natalya were big, beefy girls, almost indistinguishable from one another. They moved as one, shoulders touching as they walked, heads huddled together over a crossword puzzle, their movements like synchronized swimmers. They even lit their cigarettes in unison.
“Anna,” the guard called out.
Anna was one of the murderers, and she didn’t look quite normal. She had stringy brown hair and an eye that veered off to the right, like a punch had thrown it off kilter.
Anna jumped up and snatched her package out of the guard’s hands. His eyes blazed, and he punched her in her wandering eye. She fell back onto her cot. I gasped. No one moved. Anna turned her back to us, her body slowly buckling into itself like a flower wilting.
I spun back to the guard. The movement caused my head to throb again, and I rubbed the palm of my hand against my forehead. The guard was itching for a fight, for any slight confrontation to his authority. I could see the challenge in his eyes. Maybe he had a Napoleon complex. He was short and stocky and stood rigidly straight, as if to give him more height, as if he’d practiced perfect posture.
The other murderer rushed to the toilet and threw up.
“Zoya.” The guard spit out her name with disgust, and threw her mail on her cot. From what I could recall, Zoya spent her entire stay either on the toilet or with her head down in it. She was flushed and feverish. Her discomfort was hard to watch, but Sveta warned me that the politicals didn’t trust the murderers enough to help and vice-versa. Anyone could be a spy for the KGB.
Napoleon finished the mail and stood for a moment, glaring at me like he wanted to open his mouth and take a bite. After living under Sam’s thumb most of my life, I despised the thought of anyone or anything having power over me. But what choice did I have now? My hand shot up to my cheek, and I lowered my head. That seemed to pacify him, and he turned to leave. The door whooshed and bolted shut behind him, and we all let out a long exhale.
Everyone had a letter or package, except me. With the opened parcels came a rush of new smells: salami, cheese, onions, biscuits, chocolate, pastries, and garlic. Except for the cabbage soup, I couldn’t even recall eating.
“Come here,” said Sveta. I climbed over my cot to join her and grimaced. It seemed every muscle hurt when I moved. But I was famished. Sveta took a thin piece of nylon string out of her pocket, held each end and sliced through a roll of salami. “I learned this last time I was here,” she whispered and looked over at Anna to make sure she wasn’t watching. “The guards cannot detect the string when they arrest you, and it comes in handy.”
She spread out the brown paper bag used to mail the food and arranged each item neatly in its own space: sliced salami, sliced lard and onion, chocolates, hard-boiled eggs.
This, too, reminded me of Hannah. Hannah loved to organize everything. STAPLES was her favorite store.
When Sveta was satisfied with the arrangement, she made a sandwich out of salami, onion and sliced lard and handed it to me.
“I have nothing for you,” I said.
“You’ll get a package soon, and then you’ll share with us.”
“Who sent you the food?”
“Supporters. Our families.”
It was a testament to how hungry I was that I’d even think of food considering the odors of Zoya’s vomit still permeated the cell. But I bit into my sandwich, and the rich taste fired all my senses. The bread was dark and crusty, the salami, smoky and dry. The onion made my eyes sting. But it killed me to chew, and I massaged my jaw. This was real food instead of the soup they served at the canteen, and I was determined to eat it even if I had to mash it and eat it with a spoon.
“Thank you so much for this,” I said to Sveta. I took another small bite and chewed slowly. “You said ‘the last time you were here.’ How many times have you been in jail?”
“This is my third,” Sveta said. She took out a hard-boiled egg and cracked the shell.
My eyes opened wide. “Your third?”
“Yes. The first time I was home on holiday from school in America. I’d been at Northwestern studying to become an architect. I was going to come home and build beautiful buildings for the state. Ha!” Sveta shook her head and moved the eggshells into their own little pile away from the food. “My boyfriend and I were on our way to a concert when two plain clothes officers stopped us and searched our rucksacks. We didn’t know who they were. They didn’t identify themselves. I had a European Union flag in my bag, and they arrested both of us. Charged us with ‘hooliganism,’ a common charge for political activists. I went to jail for five days. My boyfriend was expelled from school.”
“For carrying a flag?” I asked.
Sveta took a bite of her egg and nodded. “That was my first arrest. The second was for a rally like this. Again, I was thrown in jail. My boyfriend was forced to join the army.” She looked up at the cell door and whispered. “That’s what they do, you know. They try to steal your soul. And when you don’t go along, they eliminate you one way or another.”
During the Vietnam War in the Sixties and early Seventies, Sam used to make me watch the news showing the protests and moratoriums that were held around the country. He used to say that it was a badge of honor for a person to be arrested for taking a political stand.
“Why do you do it?” I asked.
“Do what?” Sveta threw down her egg and dug into her box of chocolates.
“Keep going to rallies.”
“Because if we don’t go, they will win. To go out on the street and scream ‘I’m free! I’m free!’ It’s the only way to climb out of those tiny spaces that the powerful put you in.”
She popped two pieces of chocolate into her mouth and grinned. “I love chocolate.” Chocolate drizzled from her chin, and I laughed. There she was, the kid behind all that bravado. Sveta held out the box to offer me one, but I shook my head. I’d wait and see how the salami settled first.
“How about you?” Sveta asked. She wiped her chin with the back of her hand, and then swept her hand across her pants. “How many times have you been in jail?”
“Me? Never! I’m not supposed to be here. This is a mistake.”
Sveta swallowed. “Of course it is.”
“No, no. You don’t understand. I’m not one of you.” Immediately, I regretted what I’d said and wished I could take it back. There was a slight flicker in Sveta’s eyes, a small seedling of distrust. I remembered her warning. Anyone could be a spy.
“I didn’t mean it like that,” I said, reaching out and touching Sveta’s leg. “The work you’re doing is great. GREAT! I mean…I was just caught in the middle of a situation…I’m an American.”
“So you’ve said repeatedly.”
I could tell by Sveta’s sarcasm that the germ of suspicion was already rooting. I smiled and reached in the box for a chocolate. “They haven’t even charged me with anything yet,” I said.
“They never do.”
The candy was halfway to my mouth when I stopped. “What do you mean? They have to charge me with something. When do I meet with my lawyer?”
“You might not even get one, and they never tell when you’re going to trial. They just come and get you.”
I sucked in a breath. “But that’s not right. How…how can you live like that?” Again, I regretted my words just as they’d left my mouth.
Sveta dropped her candy. “One thing I learned in Chi-ca-go.” She said the “a” like she was sneezing it out of her nose. “You Americans are so idealistic.” Her shoulders straightened. “How do we ‘live like that?’ ‘That’ is what we’re trying to change.”
She was very much like Hannah now; her words like jabs in the chest. “You see Natalya and Olga?” continued Sveta. The two lay on their cots reading a newspaper spread out between them. “They work for Charter ’97, an underground newspaper. They weren’t even at the rally. They were at their office, and the KGB broke in and raided them. Took all their computers. Arrested them for writing articles that ‘defile the president.’ None of us are ‘putting up’ with the system. We are working to change the system.”
“I understand. Of course. I didn’t mean to offend you,” I said. “Honestly. It’s just…well; they have to get me a lawyer. I’m an–”
“American, I know,” said Sveta and folded the ends of the wrapper over her food. “Special treatment.” She got up and walked over to Natalya and Olga. “Who knows? Maybe you’ll get lucky.”
I watched her go. Natalya made room for her on the cot and pointed out an article in the paper.
Now I’d pissed off my only ally. But I wasn’t in jail to make friends. I was in jail because I’d been stupid enough to let my guard down and get sucked into one of my father’s messes again. And by the way, where was Sam in all of this? Or Yelena? Or Bella? I hadn’t heard from anyone. They hadn’t even sent a goddamn package of salami!
My father. Everything might still be a blur, but there was one truth that came through, clear as a bell. When I got home, I planned on never speaking to him again. I didn’t care anymore who was wrong or who was right or that by involving himself in this demonstration he was doing exactly what he should be doing. I’d spent my entire life cowering within the confines of Sam’s shadow, breathing in his moods, analyzing his motives. My whole life had been dedicated to getting my father to love me. And now, I was done. The wall was going up again, supported by steel and concrete and joists.
Anna sat on her cot, her head down, nibbling on a pickle like a mouse working a piece of cheese. She glanced up in my direction but with her drifting eye, I couldn’t tell if she was looking directly at me or past me. I turned away.
Zoya slept. She mumbled in her sleep and thrashed about as if she were having fitful dreams. Beats of sweat formed on her forehead. She needed a doctor, but Sveta had told me they refused to take her to the hospital.
The chanting from down the hall grew louder. I could distinguish the voices now as male, singing a piece I assumed was in Russian. Soon, female voices joined in from another cell, harmonizing to what sounded like a folk song. It was soft and melodious. Bob Dylan-ish. For a brief moment, my spirits rose. There was life in these cells, a human connection not even Napoleon’s fists could pummel.
A guard screamed from across the hall. “Past’ zakroi!”
The inmates ignored him. In fact, new voices joined in the song, then more, and more, and the music turned from folk to a melody more defiant and angry. Sveta jumped up from her cot and called out to her cellmates. Natalya and Olga stood and joined in, and soon the entire floor was rocking.
“Past’ zakroi!” the guards roared. “Past’ zakroi!”
The vibration of the music moved up through my bare feet and into my legs. Goose bumps popped up on my arms.
“What are you singing?” I yelled above their voices.
“A Belarusian song.”
“Why are the guards angry?”
“We’re not supposed to sing in Belarusian. Only Russian. It’s a song from the underground.”
Now Anna joined in as well. She sat on the edge of her cot, her head lifted, her eye staring off to the side like a goldfish. Even Zoya opened her eyes and pulled herself up on her elbows.
“What does the song mean?” I asked.
Tears glistened on Sveta’s cheeks. “We are no longer afraid!”
Napoleon threw the door open and rushed inside, yelling for the women to stop.
“Zavali yebalo! Zavali yebalo!”
His face filled with rage. He looked around for someone or something to hit, but what was he going to do, take on all the women at once? Now another guard rushed up beside him. They were both cursing. I couldn’t understand the words, but I got the meaning.
Chyort voz’mi! Chyort!
Soon a third guard pushed through the door. He glanced around the room and yelled, “Sophie Margolin. Sophie Margolin.”
Maybe it was just a coincidence, but the song ended at that exact moment. The cells grew quiet. The women froze.
“Sophie Margolin,” the guard yelled again, but with all the other voices lowered, his seemed to scream.
I turned to Sveta. “What does he want?” I asked, panicked.
Sveta spoke to the guard and then faced me. “The embassy counselor is here to see you,” she said. “Looks like you may be a lucky American after all.”
I followed Napoleon down the hall. The prisoners began another song, and this one sounded vaguely familiar even though it was in Belarusian. Then I recognized the melody. They were singing the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine.”
I hummed the tune. There was a bounce in my step. Napoleon looked over his shoulder and threw me a dagger-stare, but I felt so happy and relieved, I just hummed louder. Soon I’d be outta here, and he could kiss my American ass goodbye.
Napoleon led me to a small room with one metal table and two folding chairs set across from each other. A heavy-set man with jet-black hair and a full grey beard sat behind the table facing us as we walked in.
His chair scraped against the concrete floor as he stood. He cleared his throat and held out his hand.
“Mrs. Margolin? My name is Dmitry Kubrak. I’m the vice-consul of the American Embassy.”
He was American! His dialect was as American as a mattress sale on President’s Day. I rushed over, reached across the table and grabbed his hand with both of mine. “Thank God you’re here! Where have you been? When can I get out? How long have I been here?”
He chuckled and sat back down. “You’ve been here three days.”
“Is that all?” It seemed like years.
Dmitry motioned for me to sit and shot a glance at Napoleon who took his place by the door. I was too fired up to sit. I wanted to run. I wanted to skip. But I yanked the chair away from the table and plopped down.
“I’m sorry it took so long,” he said, “but we are only five people in the Embassy now. Very busy.” He had that ragged, weary look of the overworked. His wrinkled jacket looked slept in; his tie twisted backward and fell crooked against his bloated belly; his hair was mussed, and his bloodshot eyes gave the appearance of someone who drank too much.
“The Ambassador and the rest of the staff were sent home a month ago,” he said.
“Yes, I read that, and I appreciate it so much that you came. So,” I clapped my hands together. “What’s our plan? When can I get out of here?” My leg shook under the table.
One corner of his mouth lifted as if he were suppressing a smirk. “I’m afraid it’s not that easy, ma’am.”
“What do you mean? They can’t keep me here. I’m an American.”
“Yes, but you were arrested at an illegal demonstration setting a picture of the Belarusian president on fire.”
“No, I didn’t do that! I’d just grabbed the lighter from–someone else!”
“Yes, yes, we know all about your father.”
“My father?” My face flushed with rage and my jaw tightened.
“He confessed right after you were taken. Came down here and told the KGB that he was the one burning the photographs, not you.”
I shuttered with relief. “Thank God.”
“But they didn’t believe him.”
“What?” Dmitry’s face blurred. I felt lightheaded.
“Or they don’t care.” He shook his head and glanced up at Napoleon. “There’s something at work here.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know. I’m puzzled.”
I was being sucked down a black hole into which I’d never climb out. No matter what had happened the last few days, I knew I’d get out. I couldn’t comprehend any other outcome. But now, it was hard to grasp this new reality.
He reached into his briefcase and pulled out a sheet of paper. “Would you like a lawyer?”
I tried to focus. “What? Of course I’d like a lawyer.”
He placed a sheet of Russian names in front of me. “Pick one.”
I gave it a cursory glance. “I don’t understand. Don’t you have a lawyer on staff for this kind of situation? You’re the State Department!”
Dmitry looked at me with pity. “We don’t have the budget for that.”
He kept staring at me like these were things I was supposed to know. “I don’t understand. They can’t just keep me here? They haven’t even let me make a phone call.”
Dmitry reached back into his briefcase and pulled out a legal pad. “I can make a phone call for you.” He touched the legal pad with his three middle fingers and moved it across the table. “Write down the phone numbers. I can call anyone you like.”
I grabbed the paper and pen, but my hand was shaking so hard, I could hardly control the pen. It seemed to move on its own. “You can call my husband back in the States.” I wrote down Richard’s name and number. “And Yelena. I have a friend here you can call.”
“Yelena’s already been in touch with us,” said Dmitry. “She used to work at the Embassy.”
I closed my eyes to fight back tears but they flowed down my cheek. “What did she say?”
Dmitry slid the pad back to his side of the table. “I believe she and your father are exploring every possible avenue.”
A few tears dropped onto the list of Russian lawyers. I smeared them away with my hand and sniffed. “Can you ask Yelena to call one of these men? I trust her to make the decision.”
“I can do that.”
He tore off the top sheet of numbers on the legal pad and handed me back the pad and pen.
“I want you to start writing. Write what’s happened to you so far. Anything and everything you can think about, no matter how insignificant. It might help us build a case. I’ve asked your father to write down his experience as well.”
I snorted. “My father? Don’t ask him. He’s delusional. Why do you think I’m here in the first place?”
“You never know what will help.” He looked at me, again, as if I had all the answers. “What else?”
“What else what?”
“What else can I do for you?” He checked his watch. “Oh.” He reached into his magic bag of tricks again, pulled out a stack of American magazines and a bottle of vitamins and pushed them toward me.
“These are for you. You should take a vitamin every day to keep strong.” I stared at the bottle of pills and the stack of year-old People and Car and Driver magazines. What the hell was I supposed to do with these?
My head shot up. “You’re going? That’s it?”
He propped up his briefcase on the table and rested his hands on the top.
“What would you like me to do?”
“What would I like you to do? Are you kidding? With all due respect, you’re my representative. You’re supposed to protect me. You’ve got to have some sort of plan beside my just…” I shoved the legal pad away with my hand…”‘writing down my thoughts.’ They can’t just keep me here when they’ve got to know I’m innocent. I’M AN AMERICAN, DAMMIT!”
He unraveled his tie and patted it down over his belly, but it fell back to the same crooked spot as before. “I understand your frustration, Mrs. Margolin. I wish there was more I could do. What most people fail to understand is that you’re only an American in America.”
Napoleon opened the door. “I’ll try to come back and see you in a few days,” he said over his shoulder as he walked out. “In the meantime, take your vitamins.”
Read Julia’s interview about the excerpt and her novel in progress, White Russian