“Robert talks about you. Elmer Vins. Carleton economics professor,” Maria said.
“She doesn’t mean it like that,” Robert said. “She’s negotiating status.”
“Carleton economics professor,” Sechi said, in her Japanese, cherry blossom voice.
I liked Maria’s Portuguese-German accent. She looked like Madonna in Edvard Munch’s painting. We were drinking the red Kelowna wine I picked up on the way to Ottawa, while we ate supper. Robert, a friend from UBC, invited me to stay with them at their Sandy Hill house on Blackburn Street for my first night in town. I had smoked the last of my marijuana with some bikers at a campsite near Lethbridge, Alberta. Robert abstains, so we just had coffee later.
The next day I called the numbers in the classifieds with apartments to rent. Nothing suitable in my price range was available except for a place on Rue Charlotte. When I met the rental agent, I discovered the apartment was across the street from the Soviet Embassy. It seemed a deal at the price, being on the ground floor with a kitchen, bedroom and living room-study, with private parking. I could rent it that very day, and it even had a few pieces of furniture and dishes left by the previous tenant. I could sleep on the floor until my belongings arrived. I signed the rental agreement. Opening the living room curtains that night, I felt a twang of anxiety as I looked at the brooding presence of the Soviet Embassy.
The girls and Robert seemed surprised I had taken that apartment. Maria worked as an international economist at the Brazilian Embassy on Wilbrod Avenue nearby. She said, “That place is always for rent. People live there for a few months and then leave. If the Russians don’t hassle you, the RCMP will.”
Sechi, whose boyfriend worked at the Japanese embassy, laughed. “Russians,” she said. Somehow, her eyes always seemed focused just right under her black lashes and hair.
Robert analyzes the economic data of various countries for the Department of Finance. He thought it was probably OK. When I asked if that was because he worked in a spook shop, Robert said, “Why do you say that?”
Both pairs of my grandparents had emigrated from Russia. Since my mother was born in Russia, I had a slight claim on Russian citizenship. Or did the Russians have a claim on me? I certainly had no plans to exercise such right or privilege, often having heard of the hard times the Mennonites endured under the Communists. Are totalitarian regimes necessary? Wasn’t the Brazilian government a military dictatorship?
As I went about my daily activities that fall, I ignored the people entering and leaving the Embassy’s compound. It had nothing to do with me. During the day I taught classes at Carleton University and worked in my office on research. Weekends I spent with Sechi, Maria, Robert, and friends. We loved to dance at the discotheques across the Ottawa River in Hull, Maria and Sechi in clinging peasant dresses and Robert and I in low waist jeans. KC and the Sunshine Band. South America is sensuous. Maria and I became lovers. She called me Geraldo.
Evenings alone at home, I could not ignore the antennae spiked Embassy building, as it cast its gothic, Stalinist spell along Rue Charlotte. Looking through my window, I imagined I was in Moscow waiting fearfully for KGB agents to arrive in black Volga automobiles to arrest me for sedition. And I wondered why some people live in fear of their own governments. Did this injustice bother others living here among the embassies? Or had time tough-skinned them?
I learned a lot from Maria. I replaced Sechi as her date to Ottawa embassy functions. According to Maria, most of the guys working at embassies were gay, and that the ambassadors all fucked one another. She didn’t mean it literally. I thought I knew what she meant.
One evening after a romantic dinner in my apartment, Maria and I talked about the demonstrators I had run into on the sidewalk just steps away from my windows.
I said, “One of the picketers had a sign that said ‘Release Georgi Vins’.”
“I know,” she said. “They walked by us on Wilbrod. They have been around before.”
Thinking of the way she said my last name when first we met, I said, “What is that about?”
“Don’t you know, Geraldo? His father went the other way, after the Russian revolution.”
“That’s the first I heard of him,” I said. “They were holding up bibles like they were warding off evil, or vampires.” The lamplight showed the dark spot in Maria’s left grey-green eye.
As I closed my living room curtains, she said, “Lenin is watching you, economics professor.”
I thought she meant the Russians had security cameras aimed at my window because of the demonstrators, so I said, “Probably listening too, and sending it all back to HQ on Lubyanka.”
“Maybe,” she said, stretching her fingers and examining her rings and nails. “But the statue of Lenin in the lobby of the Embassy looks straight at you.”
It was bad enough that Marxist-Leninist theories looked over my shoulder at my academic research on government owned petroleum companies like Petro-Canada. Now Soviet cameras and Lenin’s eyes were watching me here. And some relatives in Russia were being persecuted for their religious beliefs. For people like Maria, such concerns were not academic.
The next time I saw the ‘Georgi Vins’ demonstrators, I stood with them on the west sidewalk of Rue Charlotte. When I asked them about Georgi Vins, a young woman who introduced herself as Marion said he was a dissident Russian Baptist who had been imprisoned in Moscow in 1974. I told her that I might be a relative, and invited her in for tea as the picketers were leaving.
The setting winter sun’s rays glowed in the Embassy windows, and were reflected across Rue Charlotte into my living room where Marion and I drank tea and chatted. She was tall and willowy, a look that fascinated me in my female students.
“Why are you doing that? Do you think it will change things in Russia?” I asked.
“I wrote my thesis in political science on the conflict between the Soviet State and its fundamentalist Baptists,” she said. “I used Georgi Vins’ plight to illuminate this conflict.”
“But Marxist-Leninist’s want to stamp out this opiate of the masses—religion.”
“And these Baptist’s believe the future of mankind depends on a relationship with God.”
“If religious oppression requires a totalitarian government, then Russia should be a democracy.
“How many times have I heard that?” she said. “How academic? We want to get Vins free.”
Since I grew up in a fundamentalist Mennonite church environment, I wanted to say that churches are themselves somewhat undemocratic. But I dislike arguing about religion.
Before Marion left, she said, “Will you commit to one person’s freedom?” And she asked me to place her ‘Release Georgi Vins’ sign in my window. I thought, why not? Now the Lubyanka KGB would see the sign instead of me having my morning toast and coffee. Perhaps this was a good way to get the message back to Moscow where the decisions were made.
Brazilian’s hate the Ottawa winters. Before Christmas, Sechi and Maria left for an extended holiday in Brazil with some vague plans of returning after Mardi Gras in February. During those evenings while they were away, I liked to sit in my easy-chair, drink a glass of Scotch, listen to the snow hushed cars slowing down on Rue Charlotte before turning onto Laurier Avenue, and watch the bottom half of pedestrians under the ‘Release Georgi Vins’ sign.
It was late in the evening in late February and Maria was still in Brazil, when I heard a car pull into the no parking zone in front, doors slam, the building’s front door open, and someone knocking on my door. I opened the door. The two men in dark suits showed me their RCMP identification, and one officer said, “We need to talk to you. Can we come in?”
I was thinking the marijuana oppressors had arrived. Since I hadn’t seen any dope since summer, I let them in and said, “What’s this about? Has a relative died?”
Apparently, Robert had applied for a job at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C. using me as a reference, and they were running a back-ground check. After the usual questions, one officer said, “So Robert’s drinking is under control?”
Relieved by the direction the interview was going, I said, “Yeah, he doesn’t drink that much.” And I thought, if he asks me if Robert is gay, how would I know?
Instead, he said, “We want you to take down your Georgi Vins sign. He is your relative.” Making a gap between his thumb and forefinger, he said, “We have a file on you this thick.”
I said, “You know I can’t do that. I’m not breaking any laws.” And then I said, “Is this your apartment building?”
Visibly upset, the RCMP officers quickly left my apartment. I was really doing it.
Somos Novios/It’s Impossible Luis avec Celine.
© Elmer Wiens