An Unexpected Journey
Lying on my side, I tried to settle in for the long flight from Chicago to Khabarovsk. There was plenty of open space in the massive Ilyushin aircraft. The fabric scratched my skin, and the cheaply upholstered cushions provided little comfort. My feet felt restricted by the inflexible plastic armrest from the aisle seat, and the Walkman earpads pressed against the makeshift pillow from my winter coat pinched my ears. The cassette played soothing songs, but sleep was problematic. Thoughts of traveling to the ‘new’ Russia kept swirling around in my head. At twenty-four, I would be one of the youngest Americans to experience Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union a little more than a year earlier. It was the journey of a lifetime that occurred almost by accident.
I had been living with my fiancée since finishing my graduate work in Russian studies. While western interest in the former Soviet Union was increasing, job opportunities remained elusive. For many months, I walked the streets of Chicago’s business district, handing copies of my resume to scores of receptionists who likely discarded the piece of paper. On rare occasions, I managed to get a brief meeting with the human resources manager, who usually explained that, although my credentials were impressive, the company had no real need for my talents. In the meantime, I worked as a clerk stocking shelves at a local pharmacy. It was tedious work, but the salary provided money for food and rent.
One winter evening, I returned home to see the red light flashing on the answering machine. A man named Don McPherson had left a brief message stating that his firm, The Pyramid Group, was evaluating a project in Russia and wanted to speak with me about the opportunity. He mentioned that he had found my resume in the file kept by the receptionist. I immediately called back and set a time to meet the next day. I arrived at the six-story grey stone building on Michigan Avenue dressed in my only business suit. While standing in the elevator, I checked the knot in my green tie, using the reflection in the gold metal control panel. The lift stopped at the fifth floor, and I stepped into a small corridor covered with tan carpet. A set of glass doors inscribed with The Pyramid Group in large black letters stood to my right. I entered the suite and approached the reception desk, where I introduced myself.
Several minutes later, a tall, middle-aged man with sandy hair arrived from the back of the office. He wore a red and blue striped collared shirt and light tan pants held in place by a thick brown belt. After a brief introduction, I followed him through another set of glass doors near the reception area. Numerous framed photographs hung on the walls depicting high-rise buildings, golf courses, and commercial centers. Just past a conference room on the left, Don turned into an office. An imposing wood desk centered the room, behind which stood two tall bookcases overflowing with files, books, and various mementos anchored the room. The desk was similarly cluttered. Files lay sprinkled over the surface, and a small marble nameplate at the edge of the desk reminded visitors of its owner. More framed pictures adorned the walls, with a wide-framed photograph of a harbor scene on the right. I lowered myself into one of the thinly cushioned chairs in front of the desk.
Don explained that another Chicago company had approached The Pyramid Group to participate in a Russian Far East development project to design and build several commercial development plans, including a golf course.
“We have the real estate expertise but do not have anyone here at the firm who speaks Russian,” Don added. “That’s why I was interested in your resume since we will need documents translated. Is that something you could do for us?”
I responded yes and added that I would love to participate in the project. I tried to temper my excitement and told Don that I could begin immediately. He explained that the role received a small stipend and would be followed by a larger bonus payout after completing the project. It was not ideal, but my youthful enthusiasm for the prospect brushed away my concerns, and I agreed to work under those conditions. Don informed me that the firm was hosting a breakfast for a group of Russian officials and businessmen in Chicago in two weeks.
“The Russians are from Khabarovsk,” Don said. “Have you heard of it?”
“No,” I replied. My knowledge of the Russian Far East came mainly from the novels by Dostoyevsky and Solzhenitsyn describing life in Siberian penal camps.
Don spun around in his chair and grabbed a thin paper cylinder from a bookcase shelf. He slid out a rolled-up Russia map and unfurled it on his desk. I got up and stood over the map to better see the markings on the paper. Circled in red ink was Khabarovsk, a city of half a million located several hundred miles inland from the Pacific Ocean. The town sat on the northeast bank of the Amur River, which served as the border between Russia and China.
“I will read up on the city before the delegation arrives,” I said.
“Good idea. I’d also like you to read up on some of the basics for real estate development to improve your understanding of what we do.” Don turned to his bookcases again and selected several commercial and golf course development books.
“I’ll be prepared,” I said, taking the books from the director.
That evening I quit the pharmacy job. At first, I translated documents, mainly contracts and marketing materials, into Russian in preparation for the upcoming visit. The rest of my time was devoted to researching Khabarovsk's history and learning the fundamentals of real estate development. I felt ready to address the Russian delegation by the end of the second week. However, my youthful exuberance and business naïveté were to prove that I still had much to learn.
A placard reading ‘Dobro pozhalovat'’ (Welcome) greeted the group of men stepping out of the elevator. Several were clearly Russian, holding fur hats and mostly mismatched suits; they looked around anxiously. The group’s leader appeared to be an African-American man dressed in an exquisite blue silk suit. A yellow tie and bright red handkerchief stuffed into his breast pocket completed his ensemble. In his right hand hung a brown felt fedora with an enormous white feather stuck in the headband. A short Asian man wearing a University of Illinois ‘I’ pin in his jacket buttonhole was standing next to another man, likely in his sixties, with a Chicago Bears ski hat.
Standing by the double glass entrance doors, I observed some smiles from the Russians when they read the placard. I approached the group leader, shook his hand, and welcomed him to The Pyramid Group. He replied that his name was Nathan Johnson, CEO of Cardinal Communications. I then turned to the rest of the group.
“Dobroe yutro and good morning,” I said and continued in Russian. “I am glad that you have come. Please follow me.”
I led the men into the reception area, where Don and John Gainfield, the firm’s president, introduced themselves. Don invited Nathan and the rest of the delegation to accompany him to the main conference room. I trailed the group down the familiar tan hallway and through the glass partition that formed the inner wall of the conference room. Plates of fruit and pastries were scattered around the long wood table. John and Don sat together at the head of the table while I remained standing off to their right. We waited for the visitors to find seats and settle in. John then rose and addressed the delegation.
“I’d like to welcome all of you to The Pyramid Group this morning. I am John Gainfield, the CEO of the firm. We are excited to have the opportunity to….”
Translating his words into Russian, I scanned the faces of our guests. Luckily, the visitors gazed at me with expressions that indicated they understood what I was saying. I noticed one Russian, a man in his mid-thirties, was following my words more intensely than the others. He sat almost directly opposite me and appeared to verify each sentence I delivered. The man nodded in agreement for the first several minutes when I finished my translations. However, when I started to translate John’s description of the firm’s real estate development activities, the dark-haired Russian put down the pastry he had been eating and stood up.
“I am sorry to interrupt,” the man said in fluent English. “I need to correct what Ken just said. My name is Ivan Ivanovich Volkov, the interpreter for the delegation.”
I stood surprised as Ivan proceeded to restate, in Russian, what John had said. Having finished, Ivan sat back down. I made a few more attempts to translate the CEO’s speech but was stopped each time by the Russian interpreter. Finally, Ivan announced that he would provide the translation for the meeting. Slightly embarrassed, I sat as a spectator for the remainder of the meeting. After John’s speech, Nathan Johnson explained the structure of the proposed arrangement. The Pyramid Group would function as a sub-contractor to Cardinal Communications for any real estate plans in Khabarovsk. Nathan outlined the grand projects he envisioned for the Russian city. He also introduced the other two Americans who were part of his team and involved in work The Pyramid Group might undertake. Sporting the University of Illinois pin, Makoto Tanaka operated a consulting firm representing various Japanese interests in Chicago. Due to geographic proximity, Makoto expressed that some of his clients were interested in developments in the Russian Far East. Bob Garrett was a former oil and gas executive, now retired, who desired to look at energy investments in Russia. Nathan explained that a couple of additional American investors were working with his team. The Russian representatives consisted of two government officials, several local businessmen, and Ivan, the interpreter. One of the officials spoke eloquently about how the Khabarovsk government supported Western investment and would offer incentives and quick approvals for new projects.
As breakfast concluded, John and Don had agreed to participate as part of Cardinal Communication’s team, evaluating several projects in Khabarovsk, including restaurants, a casino, and a golf course. Throughout the talks, I gazed from time to time at Don, trying to determine whether my initial failure would mean a quick end to my role at the firm. I envisioned having to return to the pharmacy and supplicant myself to get my job back.
I shook hands with everyone. After escorting the group to the elevators, I returned and poked my head inside Don’s office. I apologized for the translation mix-up and added that I thought the meeting went well. Don replied that it was unfortunate that the Russian interpreter had to take over, but he did not seem angry. In response to my inquiry about further work I might perform, the director explained that he and John needed to discuss the details for the Khabarovsk trip and would contact me in the next few days. I left the office and went home, unsure about my future position with the firm. Over dinner, I explained the day’s events to Deb, expressing my disappointment with my performance and admitting that my dream of working in Russia was just that: a dream. She tried to console me, encouraging me to stay persistent and optimistic.
The next day passed in silence while I stayed in the apartment, awaiting a call from Don. In the evening, I made plans to go to the pharmacy the following morning to see if I could regain my employment. It was a long sleepless night. My mind was full of doubts. I dreaded the thought of returning to stacking shelves and managing invoices. While in graduate school, I had turned down an opportunity to work for a government agency in Washington, D.C., and moved to Chicago to be with my girlfriend and find a job using Russian. The sensation that I had made a colossal error kept running around in my head.
In the morning, while I was putting on my winter coat to head to the pharmacy, I heard the phone ring. I picked up the receiver and heard Don’s voice.
“Ken,” he said. “John and I discussed the project in detail yesterday, and we would like to have you continue to help us. Are you still open to doing that?”
A massive sigh of relief left my body upon hearing those words. “Of course,” I replied. “I would be delighted. Do you want me to come in today?”
“That would be great, yes. We only have a couple of weeks to prepare, and there is a lot to do. I’ll expect to see you in a couple of hours?”
“For sure. I will be there as soon as I can.”
I put down the receiver, and an involuntary wave of emotion swept over me. I felt like I did when scoring a touchdown in my high school and college football days. I let out a loud ‘Yeah!’ and jumped in the air pumping my fist upward. I scored my first victory in the business world, finally crossing the goal line after being stopped short on many occasions. I rushed into the bedroom, serving as a study area, and told Deb the big news. Seated at her tiny desk in the corner, she was engrossed in preparing a case brief for her next class. I startled her with my entrance.
“They want me to stay on!” I exclaimed.“The firm just called, and they want me to keep working on the project in Russia. I am going over there now. Forget the pharmacy!”
“That’s awesome!” she said. “I’m so happy and proud of you. I have to finish prepping this brief but tell me all about it tonight.”
I hugged and kissed her and then ran out of the apartment. My feet felt so light that I almost glided my way along the streets, reaching the grey stone building in record time. The receptionist detected my excitement when I entered the suite. She had a broad smile and told me that Don was waiting for me. The door was open, so I stepped into Don’s office. He was on the phone but waved at me to take a seat.
“I was speaking with Nathan Johnson from Cardinal Communications,” stated Don after he hung up. “The flight to Khabarovsk is only twelve days from today on the twenty-first. Do you have a passport?”
“Passport? I don’t understand. I thought that I would just be preparing documents in Russian.”
“Yes, you will. However, John and I decided that we want someone on the team who speaks Russian to protect our interests. Do you want to go to Khabarovsk?”
Did I want to go to Khabarovsk? I had been waiting since my undergraduate years to journey to the country that fascinated me. I had to turn down an opportunity to study at Moscow State University during my junior year in college because I lacked the financial resources to pay for the trip.
“Naturally, I want to go,” I said, trying to contain my enthusiasm. “I have been dreaming of such an experience for several years. Unfortunately, I do not have a passport.”
“Well, that might be a problem. I am not sure we can get you one before the trip. Let me have Cheryl (the receptionist) make some calls to check.”
“OK. I think I’ll also need an invitation from Russia to get a visa.”
“That’s correct. Nathan Johnson informed me that the Russians would secure invitations for everyone.”
“That’s one less problem then,” I said.
“And, one more thing,” added Don. “The Russian delegation is holding a kick-boxing exhibition on the twentieth with a formal farewell dinner to follow that evening. Apparently, the Russians brought a kick-boxing team as part of the official delegation. You should plan on attending both events. Do you have a tuxedo?”
My duties seemed to keep expanding. I informed Don that I would love to see the exhibition and attend the dinner. I explained that I did not own a tuxedo but would rent one for the occasion. With that, the discussion concluded, and I set to work. Near the end of the day, Don stopped by and asked to speak with me. Back in his office, he informed me that I could request a passport from the U.S. State Department on a rush basis. He handed me the required documents and added that the firm would pay the rush fee. I, however, would have to go in the morning to submit the application.
The next day I went to the federal building in Chicago and submitted my passport documents. Before returning to the office, I found a men’s clothing store, where I reserved a tuxedo for the farewell dinner. I tried on several styles and chose a classic black jacket and tie. It was the first time I had worn such formal dress, and I imagined I resembled James Bond while gazing at my reflection in the mirror.
The Pyramid Group considered sending two experienced developers, in addition to me, to Khabarovsk. However, after some follow-up discussions, Don decided that one developer could handle the site reviews. He selected Jim Mazuros, who had been with the firm for about a decade and was an expert in golf course development. He had an easy-going style and a good sense of humor, which made me feel more comfortable, given that we were going to be spending a lot of time together during the visit. I began to spend more time working with Jim to coordinate activities and prepare documents.
The evening before the farewell dinner, Don and John invited me to a small café just around the corner from the firm’s office. The eatery sported a diner motif from the 1950s; pictures of Elvis and Chuck Berry adorned the walls while period music blasted in from overhead speakers. I slid into the aqua-colored bench and faced the two men across the table. I assumed the firm leaders wanted to give me last-minute instructions and advice for the upcoming trip.
“We are very pleased with your work so far,” began John. “Don tells me the documents are ready and that you and Jim have a good rapport.” He looked at his partner, who nodded in agreement.
“Thank you,” I replied. “Yes. The contracts and other materials are translated, and Jim and I have mapped out the itinerary for the trip. I am looking forward to it.”
“That’s wonderful,” continued the CEO. “We asked you here to let you know that you will be going on the trip alone. One of our major golf clients has had an emergency, and we need Jim to go to Georgia instead. I know that this is sudden, but Don and I feel that you will be capable of representing us.”
I didn’t know what to say. Two weeks ago, I was a clerk in a pharmacy, and now I was being asked to travel to Siberia to assess the potential for a golf course and other sites. Feelings of terror and excitement hit me at once. I sat motionless for several moments. I could tell that Don read what was in my mind.
“I understand that this seems like a lot,” Don chimed in, “but your knowledge of Russian will be very effective.” I sensed that he was attempting to boost my confidence. “You have picked up quite a bit about our business already.”
“I appreciate that, but I am not sure I can tell whether a site is appropriate for a golf course or a restaurant.”
“We don’t expect you to do the evaluation,” added John. “You will have a camera to take video of the various sites. The developers will examine the video when you get back.”
The server brought our meals. I took a few bites of my chicken sandwich to give myself some time to absorb what I had just heard. While chewing, I imagined walking around Khabarovsk with my video camera filming various buildings. I wasn’t sure that would not attract unwanted attention. Then, I thought about what an excellent opportunity to prove that I could be a valuable full-time employee for the firm. This trip might lead to a string of projects in Russia in which I could participate. I put down my sandwich.
“OK. I am ready to do this,” I said a bit too loudly. “I will make sure I get some great footage during the trip.”
“Excellent!” replied John. He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a white envelope. “This is your official invitation to the farewell dinner.”
I thanked John but did not open the envelope immediately. The meal finished, we said our goodbyes and shook hands. I watched the two men walk down Michigan Avenue before making my way back to the apartment. Thick snowflakes began to land upon my coat and hat as I strolled down East Ohio Street. Already, I pictured myself in a deep Russian forest surrounded by tall trees, the silence broken only by a sharp wind raging through the snow-covered branches. Deb interrupted my trance by brushing the white powder from my coat as I entered the apartment. I summarized the dinner conversation, and she shared my apprehension and enthusiasm. She told me that, despite the risk, I had to take this once-in-a-lifetime chance.
The kick-boxing event took place in the ballroom of a grand hotel. A four-cornered ring stood in the center of the space. I arrived about twenty minutes before the event and took a ringside seat at one of the small oval tables bordering the stage. The room was about half full. Lying on the table's surface was a limited food and drink menu flanked by a card displaying the schedule of matches. Ten bouts were listed on the card, one Russian versus one American. While reading the card, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I looked up and saw Don. He asked if he could join me, to which I readily agreed.
“Are you nervous about tomorrow? I know that we threw a lot at you last night.”
“No, I’m fine,” I replied. “It will be my first international flight. I am a little anxious since I’m going alone. But, it should be an interesting adventure.”
“I agree. I wish I had the time to go. I’d love to see what Russia is like,” added Don. “After the exhibition, you can pick up the video camera at the office. We bought a brand new model, so the footage should be good.”
“Sounds great, thanks.”
We ordered some drinks and snacks as the first match got underway. It was a featherweight bout; the two fighters were short and slender but showed a lot of energy. The Russian combatant was more skillful, forcing the American on the defensive for most of the match. After the third round, the referee ended the fight, and the three-judge panel declared the Russian the winner. I looked around the ballroom area, which was now almost full. I noticed several colleagues from The Pyramid Group dispersed among the tables. During the third match, Nathan Johnson briefly joined our table. Dressed in another colorful outfit, he expressed his good wishes for a successful trip, adding that he looked forward to signing several contracts by the end of the stay. Nathan shook our hands and moved off to another table, greeting as many people as he could. Next up was a heavy-weight bout.
Two tall, muscular athletes contorted themselves through the ropes and entered the white padded ring. The action was slower, but the blows from the fighters resounded throughout the room. While chewing on a chicken finger, a spat of blood landed on the table, staining the white cloth covering the surface. I jerked backward in alarm wanting to avoid any further blood splashes. Don shifted his chair a little farther away from the edge of the ring. This time, the American vanquished his Russian opponent, standing with arms raised in the center of the platform. After several more contests, the exhibition ended with evenly split results between the Russians and Americans. Don and I exited the ballroom and headed out of the hotel. We shared a taxi ride back to the office, where I retrieved the video camera. Don would not be attending the dinner, so he wished me well on the trip and shook my hand before I returned to my apartment to prepare for the evening.
“Here, let me fix this, so it looks right.” I stood still as my girlfriend tightened and straightened my bow tie. “There, now you look handsome.”
She helped me put on my overcoat so as not to wrinkle the tuxedo and accompanied me to the elevator. Hearing the familiar tone announcing the elevator’s arrival, she smiled and gave me a soft kiss.
“Have a good time tonight,” she said and added with a wink, “… make sure the other women don’t get too jealous.”
When I arrived, I saw a small gathering milling around the large oak bar at the restaurant. I recognized several people from the past couple of weeks: a few Cardinal Communications employees and some Russian delegation members whom I had met at our firm’s breakfast. The Americans were all dressed in formal attire, while the Russians sported a variety of dress styles; most wore business suits, but a few had on sweaters. The conversation appeared sporadic. Ivan Ivanovich, the interpreter, was busy moving among groups to facilitate the discussion. Having grabbed a drink, I walked over to offer assistance.
“Dobry Vyechor (good evening),” I said. “Looks like you have your hands full. Do you want any help?”
“Sure, I can handle this group, but I haven’t had much time to work my way over there.”
“Khorosho (OK, good),” I stated and moved towards the four people sitting near the corner of the bar. I said hello to everyone in both languages. The group, however, did not appear to need an interpreter. Several empty shot glasses lay overturned in front of each man. The effects of strong alcohol had removed any language barriers. Laughter, hand gestures, and a few backslaps sufficed to communicate. The men invited me to join in the next round, which I politely declined, wanting to keep my wits about me.
A few paces away, I observed one of the Russians standing silently in front of a painting. He was an older man, likely in his early sixties, dressed very elegantly in a dark blue suit. His greying hair was still bountiful, with a noticeable part down the left side, and his rigid stance displayed a sense of authority and gravity. I assumed he was an official of some kind. I approached the man respectfully and stood beside him. The painting he was staring at so intently depicted a lake surrounded by forest. Near the shore, people were gathered, families and couples, enjoying the bright sunny day. The artist had used an impressionist style with no clear-cut forms. I thought I had seen a similar piece during my past visits to the Chicago Art Museum.
“It’s a beautiful painting,” I said in Russian. “Do you enjoy lake scenes?
“Da (yes),” replied the distinguished gentleman. “The painting reminds me of the ‘ozero’ (lake) near my home. Your city is impressive, but I look forward to returning home.”
“That’s interesting,” I replied. I wanted to build some friendships with the delegation. It would be personally rewarding, and I thought it might help me perform my work for The Pyramid Group. “I am looking forward to seeing your city over the next week. Are there many beautiful places like your lake?”
“Oh yes, many.” I could see the man’s face brighten. “I have lived there all my life. There are endless lakes, rivers, and forests.”
“Wonderful. I hope that I get a chance to see some. I grew up by the ocean, and I miss waking up and being able to walk along the beach.”
“Well then, young man, I will see what I can do,” he stated.
“Thank you so much. My name is Ken Lvovich Maher.” I used the Russian custom, known as a patronymic, of using the name of one’s father to follow one’s given name when making an introduction. “I am representing the real estate firm.”
“Pleasure to meet you, Ken Lvovich. I am Prekrasov, Igor Semyonovich. I am the deputy governor of the Khabarovsk Krai (region).”
The leader of the Russian delegation extended his hand, which I shook forcefully. I was astonished to make such an acquaintance. I knew that influence in Russia depended mainly on personal relationships, and to have made a good impression with the deputy governor could only be advantageous. My new acquaintance and I talked more about Khabarovsk. He commented on how well I spoke Russian, adding that he had never met an American who spoke the language. I was describing my hometown of Boston when I was distracted by a hand on my elbow. I shifted my eyes to the left and saw The Pyramid Group’s CEO standing next to me. John was wearing a traditional black tuxedo jacket but had added some flair with a light blue cummerbund.
“Are you ready to get seated,” he said. “The dinner is about to get started.”
“Of course,” I answered. “I’m just finishing up my conversation with Igor Semyonovich.”
I introduced John to the deputy governor. Pyramid’s CEO was polite but did not show much interest in speaking with the delegation chief. I excused myself to Igor Semyonovich, explaining that I needed to accompany my boss. His smile indicated that he understood. I followed John from the bar into the dining area, weaving my way past scores of dark wood tables occupied by couples and families enjoying a quiet dinner. The dark brown parquet floor complemented the deep wood wall panels, while several immense chandeliers provided lighting. Near the back of the dining area were two tall wood doors with stained glass panels. Judging by John’s movement, these doors were our destination. A male server in a white dress shirt and black bow tie stood by the doors. He opened one of the heavy doors and stepped aside when my boss and I reached the threshold.
The VIP room shared a similar décor to the main dining area. The same dark wood adorned the walls upon which hung several large gold-framed paintings. The artwork also appeared to be copies of famous pieces found in the Chicago Art Museum. Several long tables covered with white tablecloths stood in rows on the light brown parquet floor. A glance at the place settings indicated an expected group of at least thirty. Small name cards sat in front of each place setting. At the moment, slightly more than half the chairs had guests. John located his name card near the head of the middle table. I noticed my name written in tiny black cursive letters on the card directly to his right. I sat down on the thick cushion and copied my boss by placing the triangular napkin on my plate neatly in my lap. I took hold of the water goblet to my right, needing to quench my thirst after my long talk with Igor Semyonovich. While I felt the refreshing water flow into my mouth, I heard a high-pitched voice speaking to my boss.
“John, who is this delightful young man you have brought tonight?”
I put the goblet down, sat back in my chair, and noticed a dark-haired woman immediately to my right. The woman appeared to be in her early forties with a big fluffy hairstyle reminiscent of the mid-1980s. She wore a black sleeveless cocktail dress, and a string of white pearls accentuated her low neckline. A cigarette was dangling between her index and middle fingers, with the butt revealing a thin red circular outline of lipstick. Adeptness with makeup masked the crow's feet around her eyes, caused by the broad smile on her pleasant face. Her manner and movements revealed an elite upbringing. Most of the men at the table looked in her direction.
“This is Ken,” replied John, speaking across me from the left. “He has recently joined the firm. He speaks Russian and will be traveling with the delegation tomorrow.”
“Wow, how exciting,” she said, feigning being impressed. “Privyet! (Hi!) That is all the Russian I know,” she finished with a soft laugh. “I am Joanne Marshall. Where did you learn Russian?”
“I studied it in college in Boston. I recently completed my graduate degree in Russian Studies in Washington, DC.”
I explained to her my unexpected journey to Chicago. She shared that she did a lot of philanthropic work in the city and had donated money to help pay for the Russian delegation’s stay. She was interested to hear that this would be my first trip to Russia, asking, half-jokingly, whether I would bring her back a souvenir from the trip. I kept expecting John to interrupt the discussion, but he seemed content to speak with the other guests at the table. In response to my question about how she knew my boss, Joanne told me she had been an investor in several of Pyramid’s real estate projects. However, by how she and John interacted, I got the impression that there was perhaps a prior personal element to the relationship. I was surprised that this woman was paying so much attention to me, but she had a pleasant manner of speaking, which made me feel more at ease. After finishing the lobster salad appetizer, I observed Joanne move her left hand to grab the cigarette box lying beside her plate. Her movement caused her white napkin to slide off the edge of the table and onto the floor.
“Oh my,” she gasped. “How clumsy of me. Would you be a dear and get that for me?”
“Of course,” I smiled and leaned down to fulfill her request.
Sitting upright again and holding the white cloth in my right palm, I extended my hand. Joanne clasped my hand in hers. I felt the soft, warm sensation of her skin while her eyes remained fixed on mine. Slowly, the woman removed the item and placed it back on the table.
“Thank you,” Joanne said in a low tone. “You are such a gentleman.”
She must have noticed the blood rush to my face because she smiled coyly while taking another cigarette from the box. She inhaled the first stream of smoke deeply before releasing it upward. She seemed to enjoy toying with me. I was unsure whether this woman was displaying genuine interest or simply trying to make John jealous. She spoke with other guests at the table throughout dinner but always would bring her attention back to me. While everyone was drinking coffee following dessert, Joanne leaned over and murmured in my ear.
“You know, I come to these events not solely for the good deeds. I also come to meet men.”
“I understand,” I said as I leaned my head in Joanne’s direction. “I am sure that there are many men who would love to be with you. You are elegant and attractive. However, I have a fiancée who I will be marrying soon.”
A broad smile came over her face. She appeared not to be disappointed or discouraged by my response. She gently tapped my knee.
“You’re very sweet.” She reached into the small black purse on her lap and removed a small white card. She handed me the card. “Here is my business card. I’d love to hear about your adventures. Give me a call when you get back from the trip.”
I thanked her and put the card into my jacket pocket. The dinner was breaking up. John informed me that he was leaving and wanted to chat with me while we walked out. I got up and said farewell to Joanne, expressing my pleasure in meeting her. John and I walked side-by-side along the corridor towards the coatroom. He had a slight smirk on his face.
“I see Joanne was working you hard tonight,” he said. “I saw her drop her napkin, hoping you’d pick it up.”
“Was that intentional?” I asked, revealing my inexperience.
“Of course,” laughed John. “She was flirting with you.”
“Wow. Well, I let her know that I have a fiancée.”
“That likely won’t matter,” my boss added. “Good thing you are leaving tomorrow, or she’d probably try to contact you.”
“Do you know her well?”
“We went out for a couple of years. We met at an event like this one.”
We took our coats from the attendant and headed outside the hotel. It had started snowing again as we walked along Michigan Avenue, which was awash in bright lights.
“Regarding the trip tomorrow,” began my boss, “I am counting on you to bring back good information so we can decide whether we will get directly involved in this project. I can bring you on full-time if we go forward with the project. Remember that you are there to gather data. Do not sign anything.”
“Understood. I will do my best,” I answered.
“Good. Well, I am going to catch a cab. Good luck!”
We parted at the intersection of Michigan Avenue and East Ontario Street. I watched as a Yellow Taxi pulled up to the curb, and John got in. I turned down East Ontario Street in the direction of Lake Michigan. It was a short walk to my apartment on East Ohio Street. I related to Deb the events of the night, omitting most of the interaction with Joanne. While I had been dining, she took it upon herself to pack my bags for tomorrow's flight. I found two large suitcases standing in the middle of the living area.
“I am only going for a week, cutie,” I stated upon feeling the weight of the bags.
“Well, you will be in Siberia, so I packed a lot of extra clothes. You know how you hate to be cold.”
“OK. That makes sense. But, why is this bag so heavy?”
“I fit a twelve-pack of bottled water in that one,” she said proudly. “You don’t know if you can drink the water there.”
I had to smile. She was right. I had no idea what I was going to face in Russia. Better to be overprepared, I thought. I walked over and gave her a big hug and kiss. We spent the rest of the evening quietly watching TV and cuddling under a blanket. We went to sleep just past midnight, knowing I had to be at the airport early the following day. Rest did not come easy. My anxiety grew now that I was on the verge of actually leaving. I stared at the white stucco ceiling for most of the night.
The following morning, I loaded the two suitcases into the trunk of the waiting taxi for the journey to the airport. Deb was standing on the sidewalk in her pajamas and winter coat. We shared a long embrace, and she reminded me to enjoy the adventure, stepping back after giving me a soft kiss. I waved at her as the taxi pulled off the curb. I exited the cab in front of the international terminal. Dragging the two large suitcases behind me, I entered the crowded airport and stood in front of the large electronic board indicating flight and gate information. Destinations to almost anywhere in the world blinked in small green lights. Looking up and down the board, I saw flights to Paris, London, Barcelona, Cape Town, and Moscow; Khabarovsk, however, did not appear on the list. I rechecked the list more slowly this time. I noticed a flight headed to ‘Charter Flight’ a few places below Canberra and Caracas. I recalled Don had told me that the Russian delegation had arrived on a private charter plane commissioned Khabarovsk government. To be sure, I headed to the information desk, and the airport official verified that the ‘Private Charter’ was indeed my flight to Siberia. She informed me that there was a special departure area for the flight and explained where to go. Following her directions, I arrived at a relatively deserted area of the terminal. There was a considerable group mingling near the gate.
As I approached the edge of the crowd, I saw Makoto Tanaka and Bob Garrett chatting with an African-American man I did not know. All three men wore thick winter-themed sweaters, which clashed with their dress pants and shoes; Bob had on his Bears knit cap. Makoto waved at me to join the discussion.
“Ken, good to see you,” he said in his barely perceptible Japanese accent. “I’d like you to meet Scott Jennings. Scott operates several restaurant franchises in the city.”
The tall black man smiled and extended his right hand. His broad smile and soft eyes, with traces of grey in his short trimmed hair, gave him the look of a man in his early forties.
“Very nice to meet you, Scott,” I stated. I felt the firm grip of his handshake. “I didn’t see you at the breakfast a couple of weeks ago.
“I couldn’t make it, unfortunately. I’ve been busy making sure my restaurants are ready while I’m gone to Russia.”
“Which restaurants do you run?” I asked.
“I own several franchises for one of the big fast-food chains. I have been doing it for almost twenty years, and the chance to maybe expand overseas is exciting.”
“Very nice. I guess we’ll be working together some. I am here to look at real estate opportunities.”
“Yes,” said Scott. “Location is the key, as you know.”
“Ken,” interjected Bob. “You should go over to the gate and check in. You need to have them register your passport since it is a charter flight.
I took Bob’s advice and started towards the gate. The crowd thickened as I moved closer to the check-in podium. I used a mix of Russian and English to excuse myself, passing through the people. I noticed a few of the kick-boxers among those waiting, their facial bruises still evident. Almost everyone held several large plastic shopping bags filled with items acquired during their stay. I saw Nathan Johnson and his entourage from Cardinal Communications to the left, seated by the far wall. Standing and talking to Nathan was Igor Semyonovich, with Ivan providing the translation. When I reached the podium, the airline attendant took my passport information. She gave me a white paper boarding card and informed me that boarding would begin in twenty-five minutes.
Paper in hand, I rejoined the small American contingent. We talked about what the weather would be like; we had all lived in Chicago for some time, but we were, nonetheless, going to Siberia in winter! We had all packed multiple layers of clothing. I explained about my water in the suitcase, which solicited several laughs. Curious about the aircraft that would take us to Russia, I peeked out the terminal window. I expected to see the typical light blue letters of ‘Aeroflot’ on the side of a white passenger plane. To my surprise, an immense aircraft stood at the gate. Reminiscent of a military transport plane, the white behemoth bore few markings except a large gold hammer and sickle spread on an expansive red banner. This craft was an official private charter flight sanctioned by the local government, an Ilyushin, carrying its most precious cargo in the person of the deputy governor.
A few minutes later, the gate attendant announced it was time to begin boarding. A free-for-all ensued. Like a snake swallowing its larger prey, the procession of passengers squeezed its way into the gangway, straining the metal walls to a breaking point. My American companions and I watched in concern and disbelief as the rush of businessmen, officials, and kick-boxers herded themselves into the plane. We decided to wait for the chaos to subside before making our attempt. On the other side of the waiting area, I saw that Nathan and Igor Semyonovich shared our plan. THIRTY MINUTES LATER, when I finally entered the aircraft, I noticed that only about one-third of the endless rows of seats had a passenger.
Nevertheless, I had to stand in the aisle for several more minutes as many of the Russians were still engaged in trying to fit all of their plastic shopping bags in the overhead compartments or on empty seats. I eventually located an empty row of three seats near the middle of the plane, where I tossed my backpack and coat on the window seat. Finally, I lowered myself into the middle seat and exhaled a sigh of relief. The boarding process had been exhausting.
A short while later, a deep voice came over the intercom announcing in Russian that the plane was preparing to depart. I sat in my seat, waiting to hear the safety briefing from the flight attendants telling passengers about the plane's safety features and how to buckle seatbelts. No such briefing occurred. Suddenly, I felt a jolt as the aircraft pulled away from the gate. I fastened my seatbelt out of habit as we rolled down the tarmac. Some Russians were still standing in their rows as the Ilyushin lifted off. The force of the rise threw those standing back into their seats.
When I felt the plane level off half an hour later, I relaxed. The initial excitement had started to wear off, and fatigue had swept over my body. Having the entire row to myself, I unbuckled my seatbelt and positioned my body lengthwise across the seats. I repeatedly adjusted my body to find a comfortable spot on the stiff, thin seatbacks and cushions. I took my Walkman from the backpack, placed the foam earpads on my head, and sought to sleep using my coat as a pillow. Melodies and lyrics by Journey, Air Supply, and Guns and Roses flowed through my ears. The songs provided some relief, but I still could not find rest. However, there was one track on the cassette that I noticed I kept rewinding and replaying. The German band, Scorpions, had recorded a song following the fall of the Berlin Wall called ‘Wind of Change’. In my mind, this song encapsulated the period’s zeitgeist. It spoke of a ‘magic moment’ of putting the animosity of the past behind us. It cast a ray of hope that longtime enemies could see each other as ‘brothers’. I listened to the lyrics over and over, imagining my journey to Russia as one of these magical moments where I could be part of burying the ‘distant memories … in the past, forever’. As the song continued to play, I drifted off into a deep slumber, dreaming of the adventure to come.