The doors to the Sokol metro station were about 50 feet behind me. The trains had stopped running some time ago. It was dark--somewhere around 2:00 in the morning.
I was 24 years old, and at least that foolish. I shouldn't have stayed out so late, especially since I had only been in Moscow for a couple of days and I wasn't familiar with the city. But the sun sets late in Moscow in May and this had fooled me into thinking it was much earlier than it really was.
My Russian wasn't very good. Definitely not good enough to explain to a taxi driver where I kinda-sorta thought I lived, which I would have had to do since I was too careless to ever bother writing down my address.
I was staying with an American family I had met 48 hours prior to this. They lived in a small gated community on the edge of the giant city. The neighborhood was surrounded by a forest, and it wasn't well known.
I had a basic cell phone. Not a smartphone. This was 2009. The phone had died hours before.
A Tajik man waved at me from his unmarked vehicle. The car was old and rusted, and one of the back passenger windows was cellophane, haphazardly taped, instead of glass. I later found out that the Tajik's name was Ikrom. He was an unauthorized taxi driver, which was illegal. That night he wanted to give me a ride somewhere. He could probably tell I was lost and a little panicky. But I wouldn't have known where to tell him to take me if I got into his car. So I didn't.
I knew what bus I was supposed to take to get home from this area, but the buses had stopped running a few hours before. If I was going to get home that night, I would need to walk.
So I started walking.
I started walking the general direction I thought I lived, knowing that there would be a six-mile trek ahead of me.
It was dark, and the path was lined with the types of characters who are usually outside on the outskirts of a big city at 2:00 in the morning.
I gripped my small can of pepper spray in my pocket, holding my finger over the trigger, ready to draw my weapon if needed. I walked through a construction site that had clearly been abandoned and was now overgrown with weeds. Then I made my way along a busy road that became less and less busy as I walked. Finally, to the right of me, the buildings cut away to reveal a forest.
I could stay on the road, which I knew wrapped around the forest to eventually cut through to the neighborhood. But that would add several miles to my already-long journey. I was tired, and would need to be up for work in just a few hours. So, with a deep breath, I risked it, and veered into the trees.
The forest was dense and dark. I reflexively pulled my phone out of my pocket to use its dim light to illuminate the way. Then I remembered that it was dead. I would have to go at it nearly blind.
There were chirps from birds, and rustling of leaves from whatever was living in that forest. The only other sounds were the cooing of the wind against the tree branches and my deafening footsteps over broken twigs.
I walked for several minutes, a little more uneasy with each passing step, becoming more and more aware that it was possible that I was lost.
And then I heard a human sound.
The faint humming of music.
I followed the music, because that seemed like the poetic thing to do, until I found an old man, sitting on a tree stump, commanding the instrument. I didn't startle him, and I thought that was strange. He was playing a song that sounded vaguely like Yesterday, by The Beatles. I listened, and as I did a great sense of nostalgia poured over me, as though the cheap accordion was playing the sounds of every beautiful experience I had ever had.
He invited me to take a seat near him, and I did.
His name was Oleg, and he told me he came to this spot most nights when he couldn't sleep. He came to play a tune and forget his troubles. He played a few more tunes for me and I watched his eyes glaze over and the ends of his mouth turn up slightly and I wondered what kinds of troubles he was forgetting just then.
He was large and round and his face was red, like he had spent a lifetime slowly drowning in cheap Russian vodka. His clothes were tattered but his shoes were black and polished. He gazed over at me occasionally for a few seconds at a time, as though he was increasingly becoming interested in this very foreign traveler who was obviously far away from home. But however interested he might have become, he never asked me a question about myself. I didn't ask him any questions either.
Instead, he just played. His fingers moved slowly on the keys as he pressed and pulled on the ends of the accordion, like long slow breaths that seemed to make time stall.
In and out. Inorganic lungs expanding and retracting so that two strangers could be at peace for a moment.
In and out. Like a hypnotist's tool, coaxing me into forgetting that there was somewhere I was trying to go.
In and out. A hollow little contraption magically creating an atmosphere between some old trees on a dark night.
It occurred to me how strange this was. How strange it was that two men who had lived very different lives thousands of miles apart could meet in a forest in the middle of the night and share a common melody and mood. Suddenly humanity seemed so communal.
After about an hour of these mesmerizing melodies, I told him goodbye and set off again through the forest, the sounds of an old Russian tune fading behind me as I walked. It was dawn when I finally reached the gate on the other side of the trees.
He probably doesn't remember it, but I think about that Stranger often. I think about how odd it is that paths can unexpectedly cross and change a person in some small way. That perpendicular trajectories sometimes make for fleeting encounters that manage to be lasting. That every time I meet a fellow Stranger, no matter how brief the interaction, I might change something for them. And that change can be a gift or a curse or something in between.
There's a heavy responsibility in that. One that most rewards those who respect it.
I received a small gift from that Stranger. Small, but consequential. I'm certain that that night will be the only time in my life I'll ever see Oleg.
|Some very skinny kid in Russia, 2009.
~It Just Gets Stranger