The last time I spoke Russian had been years before, in 2012, when I took Russian classes in Perm, a settlement located in the western foothills of the Ural Mountains. A Soviet closed city and driving force in the aeronautics and armaments industries, Perm only began appearing on maps in the 1990s, around the same time officials changed its name from Molotov and stopped referring to it as “Gateway to the Gulag.” In Perm, I took lodgings in an apartment owned by a retired schoolteacher. Widowed, with two grown sons, Tatiana Ivanovna was a heavyset woman who wore gingham nighties and bright slippers that I learnt to call тапочки; who swore by two slices of mutton fat for breakfast and thin noodle soup for lunch; who kept jars of salted gherkins on the balcony; who liked fermented milk, cats, and figurines of dancing ballerinas and Cossacks; who knew the daytime-TV schedule by rote; and who read romance paperbacks, stopping only to click on the radio at 11:00 p.m., when female callers aired their romantic dilemmas to the show’s psychologist host, a man who invariably advised them to listen to their husbands, try harder with their makeup, or buy new stockings.
The last time I spoke Russian, I sat watching television with Tatiana Ivanovna, the bulky set wavering blue-white over the china statuettes. An effeminate male presenter hosted an American talk show dubbed into Russian. Tatiana readjusted the tasselled cushions: “Why is there so much homosexuality in America, when that illness doesn’t exist in Russia?”
The last time I spoke Russian, I listened as the men who drove me and a friend home talked about faggots—that if they saw a faggot, they’d beat that man, for their wives, for their children, they’d remove that piece of shit from the ground.
The last time I spoke Russian, I met a masculine-presenting photographer, a woman who’d been hired because she was well connected, good at her job. A woman who worked quietly, always gentle when asking someone to change poses, shift places. A woman who invited her employers to an exhibition of her work—men who handed her a drink, talked of photography, then joked out of earshot: She must fuck dogs, looking like that.
The last time I spoke Russian, I shared dinner with a closeted gay man who, at forty-nine, slept with a gun at his bedside, who admitted to waking in a cold sweat, to vomiting, to having put himself in a bathtub one night after almost being found having sex with another man so he could shake and vomit and piss and shit until he could finally deal with it, until he could clean the bath, could rinse his body from itself.
The last time I spoke Russian, I was in a relationship with a man. I presented as female, passed for cisgendered and heterosexual. In one of the world’s most homophobic countries, my sexuality, always snarling to the side of me, finally caught up. Bit into this body until it showed itself, raw, bloodied. I left Russia single.
It would take another three years for me to come to terms with my gender.
Some six years after living in Perm, I would take a trip to Georgia—the first time I would return to Eastern Europe as openly queer and transmasculine.
The Georgian Military Road gradually evolved from dirt path to horse track as travellers, silk route traders, and invaders wound their way between Tbilisi, Georgia, and Vladikavkaz, Russia.
The mountain pass first appeared in the writings of Strabo and Pliny the Elder, reappearing millennia later in the diaries of Mikhail Lermontov. It eventually found its way into the travel literature of Baedeker’s Russia 1914, the guide insisting the route’s beauty warranted its ten-hour journey time.
Imperial Russian troops traversed the pass in 1769 in a military effort that would see Georgia shift from Persian to Russian rule. Not long after, the Russian soldier, statesman, and writer Count Pavel Sergeevich Potemkin sent eight hundred men to develop the road so that, by the autumn of 1783, he was able to ride in an eight-horse carriage to Tiflis—the city that would become modern-day Tbilisi. Construction of the Georgian Military Road continued long into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the project taken up by the Soviet Union after the fall of the Russian Empire.
The road remains a vein of political interaction between Georgia and Russia. In 2006, Russia closed its border at the mountain pass checkpoint in a gesture of support for the Georgian breakaway territories, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The political tension escalated into military conflict in 2008. The border remained closed until 2010, when Armenia pressed for a reopening, its economy suffering from lack of automotive trade route.
Tbilisi, Georgia, 2018: Ivano owned a mechanic shop in Tbilisi, drove tourists on weekends to make some extra cash. I was in Tbilisi for three weeks to help run a literary seminar. An acquaintance had given me Ivano’s number, insisting I visit the Gergeti Trinity Church in Stepantsminda, Kazbegi, before I left Georgia.
That morning, the light still pale as it crushed pink over the city, Ivano met me on Tbilisi’s Liberty Square. Normally four lanes deep in growling traffic, the square was deserted. A white Mercedes Sprinter tore across three lanes, swerved onto the sidewalk. The door swung open, my name ringing across the asphalt: “Lars?”
Driving through the city, Ivano and I followed the motorway along the Mtkvari River—a wide, muddied channel, where men fished, flasks of coffee beside wire keep baskets, a trout or two already slapping against the pavement.
“I was a saxophonist, played in the Georgian Symphony Orchestra. А сейчас, now, I drive tourists. I like the people, talking to people from elsewhere.”
I turned my attention from the river to Ivano, blinking from the sunlight. Ivano rummaged in the van door, handed me a faded ball cap: “I had a student once, talented boy. Even gave him my saxophone when I retired. I remember the day—hot, late autumn. He came for his lesson, and I thought, This is it, Ivano, today. And so, I did. At the end of the hour, I gave him the sax. Вот.He never went on with it. Got drunk, lost it in a taxi. Three generations of musicians, craftmanship—left in a taxi. Well, so be it.”
I turned the ball cap in my hands before putting it on, the cotton soft, the red an almost coral colour from years of sun. It reminded me of a T-shirt my father used to wear to the beach in summertime—an oversized, salt-stained thing that always looked ill-fitting on a man who, born in 1937, never wore anything besides button-downs and brogues. Even at the beach, he wore leather shoes. The T-shirt was his concession to being in the 1990s; that and going sockless in the leather lace-ups.
“We spoke not long ago. He’s in construction—told me how he should’ve tried out for the conservatory like I said. I remember his hands—wrecked from lifting, from metal, bricks, cement. I asked if he still played. He doesn’t.”
I tried to imagine this boy, to not think of my father, whose body, in his eighties, was more fragile than I’ve ever seen it. Ivano glanced at me sideways. “You’re British, yes? My sons speak English. Everyone under thirty speaks English; everyone over thirty speaks Russian. Of course, no one wants to speak Russian anymore, not after seventy years of Soviet occupation.”
So far, in Tbilisi, not knowing enough Georgian, I’d predominantly spoken English. On occasion, I’d spoken Russian, but only a few basic phrases—foodstuffs, directions—and only when there was no other common language.
After the 1917 Russian Revolution, Georgia broke away from Imperial Russia, officially establishing its independence on May 26, 1918, a sovereignty supposedly recognised by Russia in the 1920 Treaty of Moscow. Yet in 1921, a mere four years after emerging from imperial rule, Georgia was once again invaded, only this time by Soviet forces mobilised under the pretext of supporting the Georgian “peasants and workers.” Russian forces took the Georgian capital on February 25, 1921, in an assault that resulted in mass casualties and the fall of the nation within the following three weeks.
A little over a month later, the National Georgian Government—overthrown and exiled to Istanbul—called upon the international community for aid. The plea was met with silence. Three years later, in the summer of 1924, the Georgian people rebelled against Bolshevik rule. In response, the Soviet security officer Lavrentiy Beria mounted mass repressions that would see, within a single week, up to ten thousand people executed and twenty thousand exiled to Siberia. The reprisals would also see the submission of the Georgian state, relegated to being a tourist destination for top-ranking Soviet officials for the next five decades.
“You understand Russian better than you suggest, I see it.” Ivano faced me as we idled at an intersection. “You followed what I said about the saxophone. This is good. I don’t speak English; you don’t speak Georgian, so, давай, we’ll speak Russian.”
I had learnt Russian as an undergraduate. Save for the few words I’d exchanged at market stalls over the past couple of weeks, I hadn’t read or spoken a word since. I had no desire to speak Russian in Georgia, a country for which Russian had consistently accompanied cultural repression and violence. Besides, I was uncomfortable speaking Russian. It reminded me of people and places that I tended to keep at a distance, that surfaced during baths taken in the early hours, the body dissolving, memories smearing the tile. The images of myself—the most difficult to wipe clean: “I don’t speak Russian anymore, Ivano. Once, yes. А сейчас, нет.”
A church slipped by in the distance. Ivano took his hand from the gearshift and pressed his fingertips to a cloth icon dangling from the rearview mirror. For a moment, the seven swords piercing Virgin Mary Softener of Evil Hearts were eclipsed, but just as quickly his hand fell back, put the van into fifth: “Не важно, you understand. Besides, a language should never be lost. I tell my sons, all languages are worth speaking, even Russian. So, I speak Russian. We will speak Russian. Давай, разговаривай со мной!”
I turned to look out the window again as Ivano emptied his shirt pocket onto the dashboard—flip phone, Biro, crushed packet of Dunhill King Size. Outside, the river grew wider, the sides steeper. Houses clung to the rock face; rooms somehow suspended above a fifty-foot drop.
I ran my hand over the cotton of the ball cap, felt the air leave my lungs, my body slacken into the five-hour ride. I turned to Ivano, motioning to the fish in the keep baskets along the bank: “Какие рыбы ловятся здесь?”
“You don’t speak Russian, but you’ll learn the names of fishes?”
Saint Petersburg, Russia, 2010: “Окунь, хариус, щука.” Perch, grayling, pike. Feodor poured more tea into his teacup. He always brewed tea in a small pot, letting it sit until it carried a bitter tannin sheen. After that, he’d boil water when he wanted tea, add it to half a cup of the tarry mixture from the pot. “Угорь.” Eel. Feodor took a shrivelled lemon from the fridge, cut a slice for my cup, then his. I sat at the breakfast table, slowly sifting through the photographs he’d brought from the room he shared with his wife. I only once saw inside that room—sliver of a dark wood wardrobe, the mirror water-damaged, a patina of black stains blooming at the edge.
Feodor and Natalia had left Tomsk for Saint Petersburg when Feodor, once a miner, had contracted TB, his lungs already weak from years of dust and grit. Now, he spent his days in the flat’s bedroom, sitting on the balcony, watching daytime TV. They rented out the second room in their apartment to help pay his medical bills, which is how I came to know them. Enrolled in a beginner’s Russian program, the summer after my first year at university, I rented the room in their bitten-up apartment, roads rumbling eleven floors below, June heat slamming off asphalt.
Feodor lifted a four-pint Kilner jar from the floor, unscrewed the lid that rusted tight every time he replaced it, and stirred варенье,a homemade black-currant jam, into each of our cups. He sat, looked at the faded print in my hands: Feodor—younger, muscular—stood alongside a river in stained red shorts and dirty ball cap. A fish hung from his hand. Behind him, the water coursed under razored sunlight. Sipping his tea, Feodor gestured at the print: “Налим.” Burbot. I shuffled the photographs: a teenager reclined on a threadbare sofa, a Kazakhstani rug covering the wall. The boy, half-smiling, half-frowning, braced a gun across his chest. “Сын.” Son.
The motorway yawned asphalt, ochre dust. Wastelands coughed car wrecks, plastic trash. Neon bled into daylight—a red haze that whispered over Ivano’s body as he walked between the gas station pumps, returned carrying extra cigarettes, coffee in paper cups.
On the roadside, men hawked watermelons out of beaten-up Ladas. For the most part, they sat in fold-out chairs under the sparse shade of taped-up parasols. Occasionally, a vendor sliced a watermelon on a crate, walked over to another, shared the fruit.
Lighting a cigarette, Ivano looked sideways at me: “Ну скажи, why did you stop speaking Russian?”
Ivano and I drove until asphalt gave way to dirt, until hawkers disappeared from sight. We drove until concrete fell away to fig trees. Until vines smothered outhouses in thick-stemmed green. Until men and women carried rolls of wire and wooden-handled tools, shouldered sacks of potatoes across bare backs. One village spat torn tyres, rusted engines. In another, painted wooden signs flanked the roadside: ხინპალი. ХИНКАЛИ KHINKALI. Where exactly anyone might actually buy the khinkali was hard to tell; there were few doors, and all were bolted, hidden in honeysuckle.
We drove until the lushness of villages gave out, or rather gave over—engulfed. Mountains rose and fell—some great muzzle breathing mist. The road narrowed and widened by turns, sometimes asphalt, other times a loose shingle pitted with potholes.
Fog hung low that day, rolled down ravines with dull weight. Falcons circled. I remember the strangeness of that place, cars, people—all of us irrelevant, dissolving into landscape. The ricochet of streams, the sudden silence as one raced over a rock shelf—cold, clear, slicing—how it smashed against granite. And the storms: how the windscreen wipers swept at the driving rain, the view momentarily gleaming, luminous, before it drowned again, submerged under a falling firmament.
Ivano shifted in his seat. “You know, in Georgia,”—he pointed downward, presumably at Georgia in general, but landing more at the van’s gearshift—“we call the Georgian-Russian border crossing the Kazbegi Checkpoint, but in Russia, they call it the Верхний Ларс.” In English, Верхний Ларс translates to the “Upper Lars.” Ivano looked over at me, his torso straining the seat belt: “So, tell me, how does it feel to be a line between mountains?”
In 2012, after completing my studies, I left Perm. In 2013, Vladimir Putin signed Article 6.21 of the Code of Administrative Offenses of the Russian Federation, a law that prohibits distributing information amongst minors of “non-traditional sexual relations.” Individuals engaging in such “propaganda” can be fined or jailed. In a report issued in 2014 by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, the law was deemed to encourage “the stigmatization of and discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) persons, including children, and children from LGBTI families.” The committee recommended the law be repealed. The law still stands.
Volgograd, Russia, May 9, 2013: The morning after the anniversary of World War II Victory Day, the city still listless after the previous day’s parades, the body of twenty-three-year-old Vladislav Tornovoi is discovered abandoned in a courtyard. Raped with broken beer bottles. Genitals mutilated. Skull smashed by rocks. In a video released online, one of the three suspects answers questions as to why they attacked Tornovoi: “Because he said he was gay.” In statements to the police and media, Tornovoi’s family and friends respond to the murder with a single message: He wasn’t gay.
Zaporozhye, Kamchatka Peninsula, Russia, May 28, 2013: The thirty-eight-year-old deputy director of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky Airport, Oleg Serdyuk, is beaten, stabbed to death, and driven into the forest, his body doused with gasoline and left to burn through the night. Three suspects are tried and sentenced to imprisonment at labour camps for terms of nine to twelve and a half years on the grounds of homophobic hate crime. The crime receives almost no news coverage: a single paragraph in two news outlets, and a short report for the Echo of Moscow stating that the event did not elicit any extraordinary interest among the region’s inhabitants.
December 29, 2014: The Russian government passes a road-safety law that denies individuals driving licenses should they possess certain “mental and behavioural disorders”: schizophrenia, schizotypal and delusional disorders, dissociative personality disorders, dual-role transvestism, transsexualism.
April 1, 2017: The Novaya Gazeta newspaper publishes reports of a state-led concentration camp in Argun, Chechnya, revealing that over a hundred men have been abducted, imprisoned, and tortured on grounds of homosexuality. The article’s sources, which include members of the Chechen special forces, confirm at least three extrajudicial deaths at the camp with many more suspected. The Chechen government claims the article is an April fool’s joke: There are no homosexuals in Chechnya; if there were, the Special Forces wouldn’t have to respond—their families would kill them instead.
December 2018: More than a year later. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) confirms that persecution of LGBT persons did take place in Chechnya and was ignored by authorities.
December 2018–January 2019: Another wave of “forced disappearances” spreads across Chechnya. The Russian LGBT Network estimates forty persons detained, two killed.
A monk’s burial site, its earth said to secrete holy oil. The fresco of a baptism, in which yellow fishes nibbled on a man’s legs—fish with wide, forked fins and elongated bodies, strange beasts somewhere between minnows and catfish. A church whose architect, having watched its final stone be placed, severed his own hand so he could never draft a more beautiful edifice. At each of these places, Ivano pulled over, gestured: “Go, look.” Deeper into the mountains, Ivano drove us around donkeys, saddlebags laden with grapes. I rolled down the window, mist swallowing my forearm, parts of my face. An old man leant on a cane, bundles of churchkhela heaped over each shoulder, his body softened under multicoloured weight. A church stood some way off. I jumped down from the passenger cabin, red dust clouding at my feet.
Inside the church, jewellery hung from an icon of the Weeping Virgin: rosaries, figaro chains, bloodstone-set rings. A monk asked me if I wished to make an offering to the Virgin, said that leaving an item worn against skin was best, that the soul carried in the body’s heat. I looked at my wrists. The only jewellery I had was a beat-up Casio watch. I wasn’t sure the Virgin was really in the market for digital watches, even if they did have a date-adjust backlit display. Undoing the Casio, I rubbed the strap against my T-shirt. My body was an uncomfortable mix of dampness and dust. At my Catholic secondary school, we had always been taught that one gave Our Lady a burden one wished to shed. On reflexion, the Georgian Virgin was running a much better racket. Apologising to the icon, I took a coin from my pocket, prayed she’d chalk it up to cultural difference, that she’d wash the memory corroding my throat and lips.
Earlier that week in Tbilisi, I took a cab to an Olympic lido at the city’s outskirts. The driver, Giorgi, hit the gas and the brake with equal weight, cut fast across lanes, pausing only to cross himself as we passed a church, after which he resumed swearing at other cars, lit a cigarette, and crossed himself again as he undertook a truck.
Slipstreaming through traffic in that ’90s Corolla sedan, I watched through the cracked windscreen as scarred tower blocks emerged from the muggy heat. Men hawked flip-flops, rubber footballs, packets of roasted nuts. We drove past a dumping ground, gutted ice cream refrigerators leaning blue-green-pink beside seatless truck cabins.
Built for the 2015 European Youth Summer Olympic Festival, the outdoor pool rose out of a wasteland—concrete, geometric—the façade peeling poster-block red. Giorgi explained how after the games, the pool stood abandoned, the water darkening. Eventually, the city council made it public. “People come on their days off,” Giorgi told me. “They drive out here and they rest.” He said he liked to drive out here, swim a stretch.
I stood for a moment in the dust and heat. In the distance, a crane lifted a Ford Escort until it was high above the rubble of car parts, until the sun gleamed off the chassis. For a moment, the car hung there, swayed slightly on the chain jib—tyreless, windowless, trunk gaping. Then the claw tightened: papery movement of hydraulics, metal, glass.
Not long out of a relationship, unemployed, and living back with my mother, I came to Tbilisi unable to sleep. That morning, I lay awake from 4:00 a.m., the radio’s low murmur settling over my skin.
As I exited the changing rooms, cold tile ceding to hot concrete, I hoped Giorgi was right, that this place could wash a person from themself. I skirted the whitewashed diving tower, wove between sun loungers and scattered Coke cans. The Olympic pool glittered from end to end. I stepped onto the starting block, took my mark, tensed. I shot into a blue so electric it stung. For two hours, I relinquished to sunlight shafting through water, to the digital pace clock. Blue to swallow a body. Blue to dissolve weight, the heaviness of blood and days.
Afterward, I lay on a plastic lounger, sank into a heavy static of cigarettes and sunscreen, polyester and sweat. Russian pop music drifted from a PA system. Bathers crashed through the water, reemerged seconds later to flop across towels, chatting as they swigged warm beer. In the distance, far beyond the pool deck, beyond the dumping ground, the city outskirts, beyond the Ford Escort that, by now, was likely a block of splintered metal, the beginnings of the Caucasus mountain chain wrapped around the horizon—colossal, slumbering, immobile. And, for a moment, lying exhausted on white plastic, I felt my chest open, relax, felt this body unfold. As if held somehow, in heat and colour, in a slowness of soft hours.
In the changing rooms, I walked to my locker, towelled myself. A woman who had been undressing beside my locker looked at me, walked off. She returned with a dozen women and a couple of young girls. Flip-flops slapped against the tiling, stopped at my back. I paused, arm reaching into the locker. I measured one deep breath. Looking downward to avoid anyone’s gaze, I turned from the locker. The women circled me. I took in the fourteen pairs of flip-flops—lime green, neon pink, glittery pom-poms. The women stared, arms folded, each fully dressed. One woman chewed gum; another clicked her tongue. The young girls, only twelve or thirteen, didn’t say a word. A woman shifted her weight. I turned back to the locker, thought of my mother—hours, years of her care. Staring into the locker, the women still at my back, I took the towel from my shoulders. That I be kept safe. That a mother’s attentions not spill across tile. I passed the towel over my chest, stomach, legs.
Memories of a child pointing at me as I shower: “What is it?” The mother: “It’s a woman; there are lady parts.” Two teenage girls, their clothed bodies slamming me, half-undressed, against a wall: “What the fuck are you?” At a new job: “Is it a man or a woman?” And the answer from someone who has asked me once to pass the salt at lunch: “She’s a woman.”
“But is she a woman who wants to be a man?”
“But she’s more man than woman, no?”
What is it? What the fuck are you? Man or woman? Always: my body silent, strangely preferring the questions to their answers. Even when violent.
The women watched me dry off, apply deodorant, dress. Pulling my swim gear from the locker, I stuffed it into my bag and turned around again. For the first time in those long few minutes, I moved my gaze from the women’s feet to their faces. The woman chewing gum took it from her mouth and crushed it into an old receipt. The girls’ mother placed her hands on their shoulders. The woman who had initially been changing next to me now stood directly opposite. She looked me up and down. We stared at one another, the changing room noiseless. Not a shower running, not a hair-dryer blowing. No slack, sun-jaded talk. I waited until the woman unfolded her arms, moved aside to let me pass. Her blouse brushed my shoulder in cotton forget-me-nots. I said nothing as I walked down the corridor, nothing as I passed the reception desk, customer service, as I stepped through the glass doors and into the heat. Outside, I called a taxi, watched the crane jib swing cars between far-off mountain peaks. The wasteland rippled in scorched grasses. All around me, cicadas screamed.
Ivano pulled off the road onto the hard shoulder—a narrow dirt strip that, two paces from the car, dropped away, cavernous. Ivano cut the engine, stepped out, lit a cigarette. To the side, an elderly man roasted corncobs over a rusted tin drum. “It’s the mineral deposits,” Ivano gestured at the valley below, where two rivers met—one milky, the other slate. Water exploded grey-white against rock. “That’s what gives them the colour.” Ivano flicked the ash off his cigarette: “People bring their difficulties to the rivers, speak them into the water. It’s said they’ll roll deep after that, carry in salts and silt and grit, that the rivers will take what you told them.” Ivano stubbed out the cigarette: “But this is wild water—beautiful, magic, ruinous. Therein lies the risk: whatever you give to the rivers is theirs to do with as they wish.”
Ivano ambled over to the corn vendor, who chatted as he tore a page from a magazine, rubbing lard over the paper before he wrapped it around a cob. I watched as water met other water, stared until it dredged memories from my chest.
I knew Feodor as gaunt. His hair worn in a self-shaved buzz cut. An Orthodox cross visible through the holes of his T-shirt. At first, Feodor simply nodded when we met in the kitchen. But, after a few days, he sat down as I was writing up verb tables, and, gently pushing the workbook aside, placed a cup of tea and photographs in its place. For the next week or so, that was how it went: Feodor making tea, showing me pictures of his home, his mother, his son, where he fished. He told me about growing up in Ukraine, about when he decided, one warm night, insects chattering, to take the sleeper train all the way to Tomsk in search of work. How the train had whispered him in and out of landscape; how he stumbled into the wild of that place after murmuring hours of doubt; how he found Natalia—always that, the story always wound its way to the same end point.
Natalia worked double shifts on the metro, rose early, returned midafternoon, cooked, cleaned, then headed out again for the night shift. She never talked much, just: “Hello”; “Food—top shelf of fridge.” Depending on the time of day, she referred to the room I rented as a bedroom, living room, study, dining room. I’ve since done the same, when living in bedsits, cheap single rooms that miraculously start to multiply. She was similar with Feodor: a few words dealt quickly, sparsely. Yet her devotion—the quiet, physical presence. Each gesture so that Feodor might eat, might forgive himself for not working and simply rest. I only ever heard her relax after a night shift. Sat in the kitchen, she’d phone her friend, who also worked as a metro driver and lived in a block of flats opposite. Natalia would open the window, and talk with a speed and liveliness I didn’t recognise, her words tumbling out one window and carrying through my own, wide open, onto the sleepless night.
After five hours of tailing 18-wheelers and flatbed trucks, Ivano and I arrived at Stepantsminda. Shops lined the dirt road, their windows clotted with faded advertisements. Women sat on upturned milk crates, smoking as they sold dishes of peaches, cherries, cloth-wrapped cheeses. Ivano pulled over near an industrial gas station, made a call. “You’ll go with my friend to the church. It’s too steep for my car. He’s coming now. I’ll wait here, then, when you return, you can tell me how it was, being with God on a mountaintop.”
The Mitsubishi Delica jolted along, Zurab jerking the steering wheel left-right-left. In front and behind, Delicas climbed the mountain. I remembered thinking how strange a pilgrimage: no walking, no votives, no offerings, just vans, foam spilling from torn seats. Zurab switched radio stations. EUROPE—THE FINAL COUNTDOWN scrolled across the digital display, the song throbbing from speakers backlit in LEDs.
At a small clearing, Zurab swung the car to a stop. “The Gergeti church is up there.” Zurab nodded at the peak, stuffed a pack of Dunhill Lights into his shirt pocket: “I’ll stay here. You’ll need to take the path.” Jumping down from the car, I followed a steady line of tourists up the dirt track. After a few minutes, the line slowed, huddled into a stone porch. As with the other holy sites along the way, signs at the church entrance indicated that women must cover their heads, arms, and legs. Baskets of shawls and skirts stood beneath them. Each time the choice: dress as female and negate myself or forego the shawl and negate this religion, this culture that might not recognise my body as indistinct, as something else. Each time, I waited at the threshold, not knowing how to stop my body from being a thing of disrespect. As I hesitated, a monk pointed for the two women in front of me to take a shawl. At my turn, he waved me directly into the church.
Wind ached through the nave as monks milled between the tourists. Feeble sunlight pooled across flagstone. Candles alleviated the darkness, whispered over lapis, vermillion, hammered gilt. I followed a monk replacing tapers, his habit skimming tourists’ Nike Airs and Reebok Classics. At the iconostasis, I stopped beneath a mural of cherubim beholding Christ, their winged faces suspended in azure granite. On the upper left, a haloed figure—small, pale, peeling red—watched over the nave. The inscription, written in the Asomtavruli alphabet, Georgia’s oldest script, read: “Saint Nino, Mother of Georgia.”
Ivano had described how, in the early 2000s, restorers discovered the fresco hidden under a thick coat of blue paint. Most likely applied by a Russian exarch, the gesture aimed to quash Georgian nationalism by covering a saint known, amongst other appellations, as “the Enlightener.” Saint Nino brought literal and metaphorical light to Queen Nana and King Mirian III of Georgia. Struck blind for his lack of faith, King Mirian III was restored to sight after he pleaded with “Nino’s God.” I thought back to Ivano describing the recovered icon as we made the journey, his hands gesticulating, lifting off the steering wheel: “Imagine that!” The van veered. Ivano slapped the steering wheel. “A light-bearing saint plunged into darkness, left for decades behind pigment.” Ivano crossed himself, then grinned. “You know, it’s a good omen, Georgia bringing light to the Enlightener. Imagine, repaying the favour to a saint, that’s priceless—we can do no wrong now.”
“Excuse me,” an American tourist tapped my shoulder. “You know, you need to wear a shawl. They’re in the baskets at the front.” I nodded. The woman smiled, began photographing the iconostasis on her phone. Making the sign of the cross, I turned from Saint Nino, congratulated her on her reappearance, and walked outside onto a ledge that wrapped around the church. I zipped my coat against the cold, watched vultures crest through the mist. Fog slithered across the ground, around the Church brickwork, blotted sky and earth, only to clear in a gust of wind and reveal the drop gaping inches from my feet. I shuddered, stepped back. Around me, visitors took selfies, shouted and pointed when the air thinned, cramming into sudden shots—smiles, peace signs, star jumps. Behind me, I could still hear the monks murmuring devotions on the altar step, could taste the frankincense. Memories spluttered back to me, exhausted images on melting celluloid. I turned from the ledge and began my descent to where Ivano waited, far below, in the mountain’s mouth.
I drifted in and out of sleep that month in Saint Petersburg, limbs caught within the city’s White Nights. I remember the strangeness of those small hours, night after night of long, dusty warmth, tower blocks rising into pearlescent sky. I would lie on the corduroy sofa bed, the sound of cars and people rolling through the open windows. I would listen to this slow tide, people walking, drinking, bodies smudging through the disjoint.
I asked myself during those hours what it was about Feodor, how I felt so comfortable next to a man with whom I could barely communicate. A man who knew nothing of me—where I was from, how I spoke when unhindered by a language barrier, what I thought about politics or religion. A man who, in a culture that favoured women waiting on men, would hush me to sit, go about the domestic task of making tea for us both, who shared family photos by the stack. A man who couldn’t get more stereotypically masculine in his profession, how he dressed, and, yet, who spoke with such softness as to make the air feel close. Who always took time to listen to me, to perform small gestures that anchored me in a country I didn’t know, amongst strangers. He never once drew attention to everything that separated us—language, gender, age, culture, education—never made our nationalities feel like a rift. He hit upon the one thing we had in common: fishes.
I asked myself the same with Ivano—even more so, given that this time I no longer passed as cisgendered and heterosexual. In Georgia, my body was often mistaken for male. He didn’t comment, didn’t look perplexed. Not once did he make me feel anything other than safe in his company. Even if Ivano read me as female and heterosexual, even if he suggested I marry his son, he still talked of countries that had beautiful wine and women, winking as if, for just a moment, his intuitive understanding of me overwhelmed his cultural one. Somehow, like Feodor, Ivano saw me, the pace and gesture of me. Even when what he understood came without cultural framework, he grasped it—understanding as physicality, as a texture between bodies, unspoken yet sensed.
I’d like to think that being seen doesn’t always fit easy delineation—neither the who, nor the how. Feodor and Ivano—white, cisgendered, heterosexual, from homophobic and transphobic countries—welcomed this self in a manner that allowed for its slipperiness, even if they didn’t refer to me as nonbinary or queer. These men reminded me that, sometimes, a simple softness between bodies might rinse hard knowledge. That we can find the sediment of ourselves unsettled. Hear another breathing and know, in that rise and fall of chest, that the days are reckless, that this world—sweeping, swallowing current—has washed us into unforeseen waters, strange confluence.
I thanked Zurab, paid what I owed, and left the Delica’s pounding radio for the quiet of the gas station. Ivano stood beside the minivan as I approached, fine rain blurring his body, vaporous as his cigarette smoke. Dampness had set in: the ground now mud, the vendors’ grapes and red currants glassy in their bowls. Ivano started the engine. The van’s headlamps liquefied in the gathering night. At one point, we passed vendors selling honey. Huddled under broken parasols, they refilled the kerosene lamps that spluttered between the jars. The honey glowed golden to deep molasses, unearthly, as if containing its own light. We passed a glut of lorries, oil tankers, and trucks parked near a roadside hut—drivers leant over plates of kharcho, chakapuli. Near a village, a young boy ran beside cattle, herded colossal angular beasts. Our headlights fell across muzzles, horns, flanks, caught on breath that billowed—slow, translucent.
Between late May and early July, the sun never dips below the horizon in Saint Petersburg. The nights never fully darken. Streetlamps stand blank. The brightest period is considered to fall between June 11 and July 2. Twenty-one days, 504 hours—narrow slice of pale, slipping light.
For a fortnight of the month I spent in Saint Petersburg, Feodor came into the kitchen each day, set down a different sheaf of photographs, made us tea. One day, Feodor moved to a sanatorium. I left Russia before he came back.
Nine years after meeting Feodor in Saint Petersburg, and several months after leaving Ivano in Tbilisi, I thought back to that early morning as Ivano and I followed the Mtkvari River’s yawning current. How the fish thrashed in wire keepnets, the men beside them taking slow drags on cigarettes. And I remembered Feodor: his silence, his slow pace.
That day, far from both Ivano and Feodor, I looked up the Mtkvari River and learnt that almost sixty species of fish inhabit its waters, the most common being loach, bleak, trout, and nase. Карпообразные. Уклейки. Форель. Подуст.
In the years since I left Russia, I’ve openly lived as queer and transmasculine. I’m more at ease with this body, better understand its strange weight.
Yet when Ivano asked me when would I marry; when he suggested I meet his youngest son—a computer engineer, a good man, a kind man; when he gave me his number, invited me to eat with his family that Sunday, drink wine he had bought in Kakheti, see the Mercedes 450SL he was rebuilding in the workshop; when he saw me hesitate, him looking back to the steering wheel, apologetic, saying he didn’t mean to offend, even though he hadn’t; when he took the long route through the city so he could drop me where I was lodging, waited in traffic after hours of driving, men leaning out of gridlocked cars, calling to acquaintances: “Hey! We’re getting pilaf. Come. Eat with us.” When Ivano, sensing that more than the day had come to a close—a bond now severed, drifting—when Ivano held my gaze all the same: “Come back if you can.” And even when I reached over and embraced that man, his shoulders straining against the seat belt, even after I kissed each of his cheeks, praying as I did that he would carry gently through this world, I could never simply say: “Ivano, I’ve never loved men like that. Ivano, my body doesn’t fit like you think it does. I want to break bread with you, meet your sons, want to drive with you again, follow water. Only, not as someone I’m not.” If I had given myself to be seen, had enough faith in the love of this man—but I didn’t, couldn’t.
When I got back to my rented apartment in Tbilisi, I showered, flopped onto the bed. Engines idled outside; the occasional motorbike tore through the street. A man hauled sacks of cherries through a doorway, the corners leaking crushed fruit. I decided to live someone else’s Friday night. I dressed, walked to a Turkish restaurant, ordered pilaf. Families crowded around small tables. A Barbie flew across the room, and later reappeared only to be thrust head-first into a dish of rice. A mother scolded about dolls and floors and dirt, and that’s not what rice is for, and what are you playing at, go play with the dog at the door.
I sat next to the window, the street a rush of lamplight, traffic, of endless unknowable bodies. Everywhere, passersby emerged from alleyways, cars, buses, only to disappear again, trail the night with darker, drowning depth. I pushed the rice around with my fork. I thought about Ivano, why I’d not been able to drag myself to the surface. Fear? Prejudice? And, if so, on his part or mine? Because I was leaving soon anyhow? I hadn’t trusted myself to that man, a man who had shown me only kindness, who released me somehow at the day’s end. I let thoughts settle, metallic. And I hoped that something of myself might surpass the distance. That Ivano might think well of me. That, at some point, he’d remember these hours, sharing small gestures: a cigarette, apricots bought at traffic lights, words rolled back and forth in mist. That this self might shimmer before returning to lightless abyss.
That night, a thunderstorm rang out, flooded the valley electric. Water sluiced off the mountainside, the road suddenly live, writhing river-like—baptismal, apocalyptic.