A setting assignment based on Kazan, written for my fiction writing class in fall 2013, the beginning of junior year:
Graffiti stares from the ground, the walls, in three languages: English, Russian, and nondenominational drawings. The streets are brown with dirt, but they are not littered, even by the occasional cigarette butts. The dust coats your feet. Buildings, strictly categorized as visionary or boxy-grey, rise high over streets trafficked by red buses and heels. At no time are the grid of buildings oppressive or dark, but instead they stand in maze-like nakedness that puts you out alone on busy streets. You’ve been to New York, or Paris, or at least seen pictures, so you know those places judge and laugh and shout and hate and whisper and drive forward. That’s not your city. She owes nothing but function, like the paper ads, proffered by stationeries without smiles or selling words, and glancelessly accepted by passerbys.
And yet, your city is not dead. She heaves graceless artistry from a cold-stricken chest of history and shared, proud pain. That much is evident in the spray paint.
You, the men, the guys, saunter slowly, if you move at all. The women, in contrast, walk quickly, pursed, heeled and skirted. You’re stopped now, leaning against some scribble or drawing, something or other, on the wall behind you. A devushka with long legs is gliding along the sidewalk, with some unevenly pebbled pavement and weeds between you. You’ve seen her before, around. Her skirt is short, fluttering up behind her, and her arms swing bare, one hand beside her and another tucked under the purse strap over her shoulder. You don’t know her, and shamelessly, you watch her walk.
When she passes, your gaze follows her, which she’s clearly noticed by now, and when she’s closest you audibly appraise her, flicking your tongue and drawing your lips together: ch, ch, ch! And now you smirk, because you see how she heard and looked again, at you, and for that second she’s all yours, and now you’re getting a new angle as she walks off, all drawn up high, as you sink satisfied down the wall.
She passes the Sovetski playground, swings and a slide, still bright in primary colors, and you lose sight of her after she turns by the water vendor, then heads towards the produkta. As she waits at the bus stop, another one of you, also young, busy on his iPhone, doesn’t even look at her. Standing in front of identically grey apartment blocks, beholden only to the vibrant character of each one’s graffiti, she wonders, why all American crosswalks have the standardized walk/stop sign, even where people never actually cross the street; besides, are cars and people so far removed that the they can’t both use the green-yellow-red streetlights dangling so high above on wires?
Somehow, hordes of cars have pulled themselves into the middle of the street and they honk at one another. Deciding to walk instead waiting for the bus, she seizes the moment to hurry across. One of you glances at her through windshield, but you have no sense of feeling either patient or impatient with her; the city life just happens, without a great deal of self-reflection. You speed by her heels once she is almost across.
When she travelled to America, she received many blank, easy smiles. She even learned to give a few. Back at home, the same meaningless human understanding is nonexistent. She walks the streets, seen and forgotten by all of you, noticed but ignored like benches that everyone almost sits on but then decides to reserve for a babushka. She’s no more than a pretty thing to you.
She’s a thing, though, that is part of a city. She belongs here, in the collective impression, like an unstaged and unassuming weed-flower in an untamed strip between the street and storefronts.
Another one of you men picked such as flower for her as you waited at a café that looks new, like the banks. You smile when you see her.