Before I married my ex-husband, I had a lot of doubts about whether I should stay with him. My friend Bert offered a litmus test. “Do you have a great time together? Do you have more fun with him than with anyone else?” I paused. “It’s not that hard, Mar!” she chastised me. “Do you laugh yourselves silly?” I thought about high school Russian class, how she and I would giggle over something ridiculous until our teacher threatened to “slap us silly.” That usually put us over the edge, until we were both beet red and couldn’t breathe. Silliness seemed to characterize all of my most enjoyable moments, but I hadn’t had too many with my ex-husband. While talking to her then, I realized that the last time I had really had fun with him was during the 1993 Michael Jackson concert in Moscow, now sixteen years ago. It’s been nine years since my husband and I divorced – I probably should have listened more closely to my ambivalent feelings before making my decision to marry - and today Michael Jackson’s death moves me with its bittersweet reminder that choosing to reflect on the beauty when things came together can soothe a painful unraveling.
The early 90s was an exciting time to be in Russia. Under then-President Boris Yeltsin, Russian citizens enjoyed open communication with the West that had begun with Gorbachev’s glasnost policy. This meant that a good portion of my time as a counselor at a Russian teenage summer camp in 1991, when I wasn’t answering questions about salaries, car prices, and the cost of Nike sneakers, was spent transliterating songs by U2 and Depeche Mode. While radio stations started playing a wide variety of western music and the CD market began selling bootleg copies of American pop for $2 each, the classics “I Just Called to Say I Love You” and “Yesterday” were the ubiquitous staples of metro musicians and dinner restaurant cover bands. I couldn’t say how people there felt then about Michael Jackson. It never really came up, and I had all my senses could handle with day-to-day living in Moscow, as I walked through a fog of incomplete understanding.
I do know that back then everything American was fascinating. In 1992, I moved to Russia to work for an educational exchange organization in Novosibirsk, an industrial city in Siberia. There was an expat community of maybe ten, and we were all treated like celebrities, a fact I realized one day when I tried to register at the university for an international student conference. I had missed the deadline; the girl signing people up dismissed me with a rude remark that I should have paid closer attention to the student announcements. As I hacked my way awkwardly through some Russian phrases to explain that I was not a student, another girl came forward and loudly reprimanded the nasty one. “Lyuba, shame on you!” she exclaimed. “This is Marianna!” Apparently my name possessed the magical power to soothe public crankiness. The spiteful girl’s features instantly softened and she nearly drowned me in profuse apology. I had never seen either girl before, but I got a place at the conference.
It wasn’t limited to me, either. As a good-looking single American, my friend Jeff was the bachelor catch of all time. With his David Cassidy locks, leather jacket, and laid-back California demeanor, he had all of the women swooning. I still maintain that there is no fury like a Russian woman scorned, but chivalry was apparently so unknown to these Siberian women that even after dumping them, Jeff was able to diffuse their anger and stay on friendly terms. I’m afraid that as his platonic dinner date at least three nights a week, I didn’t fare as well. The dagger looks those women sent my way would have probably done some serious spiritual damage if I hadn’t found them so hysterical, and it was only when the really forward ones insisted on making themselves comfortable on his lap while we ate that the situation went from humorous to nauseating.
Each of the Americans who lived there with us then could tell a similar story. We were all hugely popular, and as wonderfully lovable as each of us may have been individually, the commonality of our near universal appeal was an American passport. Who wouldn’t be fascinated by what had been forbidden for so long, when it seemed crazy, colorful, and fun? Russians hadn’t had too much variety in their lives. The first McDonald’s in Russia opened in 1990 at Moscow’s Pushkin Square to record crowds, despite the high price of the food compared to average monthly salaries. I ate there myself in the early 90s, and the number of Mercedes parked outside never ceased to amaze me. (Neither did the fact that the bald owners of said Mercedes were usually decked out in gold chains and polyester track suits.) Newly rich and forever poor alike wanted to give McDonald’s a try. And, in September 1993, when Michael Jackson came to Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium to give the first major performance by a western pop star, the concert sold out.
I went with my future husband, Kostya. It had been raining all day and didn’t stop for the concert. I had on my tan plasch, or overcoat, an absolute staple from late July until the snow started in September or October. It was somewhat waterproof, but the large fringe scarf wrapped around my neck and green beret atop my head weren’t. Wet wool doesn’t smell nice. We had umbrellas with us, as did everyone else, but they were of little help. Struggling to stay dry only made me more tense which made me feel colder. Once I relaxed and accepted that I was completely soaked and chilled, I actually no longer minded so much. I settled into a zone of misery that was outside of normal realms and so, really, not so bad. Some of the Moscow soccer games I had attended in the bitter cold of winter were much more miserable.
Waiting three hours for the concert to begin was annoying, but I had grown unaccustomed to customer convenience anyway. Sometimes I would wait thirty minutes for a trolleybus, only to have four pull up in a row. I had spent several hours once standing with my cat at the vet’s office, which had no chairs in the waiting room and seemed to work at the rate of one pet per hour. I had experienced long, long delays in Russian airports with no news at all of the flight’s progress. My constant exhortations that I deserved timely, professional service always fell on deaf ears. If their government did not treat them well, why should Russians go out of their way to make others more comfortable? With no competition, there was nothing to gain from the extra effort.
Besides, the late start time was not explained to us, so I didn’t know how long we would end up waiting. Why wouldn’t I hang on another fifteen minutes when I’d already spent one hour, or two, or two and a half? At some point too much time had been invested to leave. By the time Michael Jackson appeared on stage, I was so grateful that I would have found any performance astounding, and I’ll bet that most of the crowd felt the same.
Kostya and I were probably midway on the soggy field of the stadium, close enough to the video monitors and with a decent view of the stage itself. From the distance we were at, a miniature Michael Jackson spun around on sequined slippers and raised his arms to the sky like a lightning rod. With a hiccup-like yelp, he was possessed, the music’s energy twisting and twitching inside him, contorting his body in a perfect balance of smooth and jerky movements, giving an external form to its power. It was incredible to watch, and I’m fortunate to have had the opportunity to see the performance live. I’ve often wondered about the nature of genius – does incredible talent come from inside the individual executing it or is it an external force needing a vessel to carry it into life? Can responsibility for this talent be too much to bear? Is the depth of the destruction done to the vessel in this process proportional to the greatness of the art?
I didn’t wonder about any of that at the time. I was too carried away by the freedom given me by the music of my homeland. A child of the 70s and 80s, I had most of the songs memorized, and more importantly, I understood all of the words! I even knew a number of Michael Jackson’s signature moves, enough to pretend to dance along. I was in the U.S. again, for a fleeting few hours, and I was happy and comfortable. I whipped my hair around in Kostya’s face and sang to him with my air microphone; he caught me when I danced around him, spinning and dipping me until we laughed ourselves silly. When I was tired, he rocked me in his arms. A few years later when I brought him to the States for a visit, he had a similar experience at a restaurant in New York City’s mostly Russian Brighton Beach neighborhood. For the bulk of our ten day trip, he’d been a quiet observer while I translated, and he relished the chance to be in his element again. “Give me that menu,” he grabbed it out of the waitress’ hand. “I’m in charge now.” That was probably our second most fun time together.
As we made our way out of the stadium’s convoluted exit paths designed specifically, I was convinced, to confuse the attendees of very large events, we saw Yuri Shevchuk, the famous Russian singer/songwriter of the group DDT. In music articles, he’s been compared to Bob Dylan and his band to the Rolling Stones. I think he looks a little like Steven Spielberg. As he approached, I thought he was someone I knew, and I couldn’t understand why he didn’t seem to recognize me. I stopped expectantly, waiting for him to acknowledge me, but he walked right by. I turned around in a huff to watch him, annoyed that he hadn’t stopped. Kostya pulled me along. “Shevchuk.” I dredged through the convoluted paths in my own brain, away from English and back to Russian. When I realized my mistake, I laughed loudly and all of my irritation evaporated. Celebrity had given his name the power to soothe too.
When I heard the news of Michael Jackson’s death, I thought of Kostya and that concert. I wonder if Kostya remembered as well. Did he think about the beginning of our partnership, when things were good between us? Did he reflect on the forces that made it unravel?
I like to think that along with our conscious universe there is a concurrent one in which Kostya and I are still dancing on the soggy earth of that large stadium, enjoying that early part of our relationship. Maybe echoes of our laughter and footsteps still circle around the area, mingling with the other happy memories of that night’s audience, providing a portal into the other world. Perhaps in the alternate universe Michael Jackson is relieved of all responsibility, a quiet man with meager talent, allowed to live and love in a peaceful life. If we get more than one chance, he should have at least one lifetime of that.