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Tobi and The Iron Curtain

Written from memories my mother told me of her trip to the U.S.S.R with heavy embellishment.

–– Nancy JonesFrancis, November 2002



Tobi and The Iron Curtain

Chapter 1

One trip my mother made to Germany to spend time with Frits, her lover and a spy for the then East German government, convinced her to go to Moscow alone.

Frits was appealing to my mother’s adventuresome side, which wasn’t too difficult. She was all adventure.

Frits – compelled to convince my mother – told her what a wonderful city it was emphasizing the culture there and the lovely people. How could she not go? Taking the train there and back was so cheap these days. She shouldn’t miss out with such an opportunity.

Being a gutsy woman, she said yes. She had a good idea Frits wanted her to go for reasons other than touring the place. She was certain he would give her something to deliver to someone once she got to Moscow, and she was ready to do it.

Frits never did ask her to take anything to anyone. He actually got someone else to do it. A woman whom my mother had met through Frits.

They were all having lunch one day at a busy East Berlin bistro. Frits, my mom and three other couples. My mom and the woman sitting next to her were catching up on everything in their lives over the past six months, speaking in perfect German, when the subject of my mom’s trip to Moscow came up. It was quite all right for her to bring up the trip to others, fore Frits hadn’t told her she couldn’t.

The two of them went on and on laughing and carrying on like two teenaged girls, when the woman stopped and asked so naturally, "Oh, I have a wonderful friend who lives in Moscow. You’d love her. She’s very interested in the ballet. In fact, she trained as a youth to be a professional ballerina, but suffered a serious injury that kept her from continuing her dance career."

My mother, being very interested in ballet, would love to meet this woman, Kasha, in Moscow. They made arrangements for the two women to meet.

The morning my mother was to take the train to Moscow, an East German female acquaintance, Gretchen, met my mother for coffee and a light breakfast at cafe near my mother’s hotel.

At the end of their meal, the Gretchen pulled out a small package, which was all gift-wrapped, and asked my mother, "I have this gift I’ve been meaning to send to Kasha forever. Would you mind taking it to her? Oh, it’s so small. It won’t take up much room in your bag. Do you mind?"

My mother couldn’t say no, though she was a little nervous. This request threw her off guard. She had been expecting Frits to give her something. Not Gretchen.

She gathered herself best as she could, and said yes, she would take the gift to Kasha.

Chapter 2

My mother got on the train with all her bags. She really isn’t a light traveler at all. I really don’t know how she can lug around all that stuff. Well, she does pay a lot of money to have skycaps, bellhops and other folks carry it for her. You’d think she had a whole entourage with her, when you see the luggage carts filled with bags as the bellhop rolls them on behind her.

It was quite a long journey by train to Moscow. She didn’t have to go through any serious checkpoints, until she had gotten to the U.S.S.R. border. She was already in Communist territory.

It was a beautiful trip all the way, the landscape constantly changing along the way. And it seemed to get colder the further east she traveled.

Usually she strikes up conversations with whomever she crossed paths with since she’s a friendly old soul and loves to chatter on. But she didn’t dare. She was far more nervous about this adventure than she had expected, yet she was quite skilled at not showing it.

My mother is such an enigma. She performs so well under intense pressure like this, yet with everyday normal events, she’s an absolute terror to all. She was definitely up for this adventure. No doubt about that. I believe spending all those years with Frits may have helped, but she really can be a tough cookie when she puts her mind to it.

So she continued on her way to Moscow, pretty much keeping her nose in a good 1,500-page book she picked up at her hotel in East Berlin. It kept her busy, fore she was more fluent speaking than reading German. She struggled somewhat through the book, though comprehended most of it.

I guess if she had something to really deeply concentrate on, she could keep herself distracted from the reality of what she was doing.

What just kills me, is that the book she bought was of all genres, a murder mystery. No doubt it played with her imagination, but she was able to keep up the innocent tourist front.

My mom, the spy accomplice. Go get ‘em mom.

After almost eight hours on the train, they arrived at the U.S.S.R. border, where the security checkpoint was more severe than East Berlin’s Check Point Charley. The guards did go through all my mother’s bags, checking everything carefully. They asked her about all her medications. What did she take them for? How often did she have to take them? Did she have copies of the prescriptions? This was all standard procedure. Yet they didn’t think twice about the small gift she was carrying. She was an older American woman traveling to Moscow to see the sights. They knew the stereotype. She looked about as harmful as a little nat. The guards sent her through once they got all of her bags secured once again.

Damn, you’d think she’d at least pack each bag more lightly for a trip like this. No, not my mother. She’s only going to be there for three days, and she packing for two weeks by an average traveler’s standards. She just doesn’t want to be without anything. Just in case. You never know when an occasion calls for something casual when you’d assume it would call for something quite formal. Besides, she doesn’t want to have to make her mind right away about what she’s going wear to each day. And if there’s someone else to carry all the bags then why worry? You’re set.



Chapter 3

Her trip wasn’t over at this point. It was more than four hours to Moscow from the border. So once all of her luggage was put back on the train, she got herself all settled into her seat next to the window in what was now a private car all to herself. She stuck her nose in her book again.

An hour or so into the trip, the sliding door to her compartment opened, and a young studious looking man entered and sat down opposite her right next to the door. He slightly bowed his head as a greeting, and got out his own book to read.

He seemed innocuous enough, but my mom’s anxiety heightened a bit. He was so young, she thought, he couldn’t possibly be involved in counter espionage. She tried to relax as best she could, which was way more than I would expect from my own mother.

However, I’ve seen her perform beautifully under intense pressure, so I tend to believe this whole story. She is a completely transformed person. Why can’t she be like that all the time? Usually, she’s such a hyper and out-of-control person, unsettling everyone around her. It’s so unfair.

Another hour or so passes, the two of them reading; not a word exchanged. He gets up to leave their compartment, my mother assuming to go to the toilet or get something to eat in the dining car, when he stumbles and falls right on top of her.

This is all very disorienting for her, and she loses her cool, screaming profusely at the top of her lungs. The man has a difficult time getting up from my mother’s lap, being in an awkward position. He fumbles and eventually is able to move himself over to the seat next to her right on top of her bag with the gift tucked away inside of it.

She continues her hysteria, and before they know it, a train conductor arrives at their door, slides it open inquiring what’s the matter in Russian.

My mother doesn’t know any Russian, so goes from ranting loudly to stuttering a staccato of angst in German mixed with English.

The man now sitting on her bag with gift awkwardly slides himself down and settles into the seat next to the door. He speaks in perfect Russian to the conductor. Whatever he says convinces the conductor that everything is all right, so he leaves sliding the door shut behind him.

My mother calms down somewhat; enough to stop screaming, though still breathing quickly, her heart pounding heavily.

The young man apologizes to my mother in perfect German. She tries to accept this graciously without too much hysteria. The man once again gets up and this time gathers all his belongings and leaves.

She is ambivalent about this action. Part of her is greatly relieved to have her compartment all to herself, yet she feels rejected because she didn’t expect him to just up and leave with all his stuff. She had this impulse to get up and run after him and try to get him to come back and sit with her, but the seriousness of the situation calmed her down and made her come to her senses. She stayed put and sulked about his leaving her.

She went into a trance ruminating over this supposed rejection eventually dosing off into a deep slumber, her head propped up against the window.

By the time she woke up, the train was slowing down entering the Moscow train station.

The station was deteriorating and dirty. The scene was far more depressing than she had anticipated. She straightened herself up, patting her hair down and attempting to make herself presentable for exiting the train. She wasn’t going to see Kasha until the next evening when they’d met for dinner, then attend a performance by the Moscow ballet.

She rummaged through the bag next to her, pushing the little gift aside. She was trying to find her little satchel filled with myriad shades of lipsticks. She dug through everything in that little bag, her anxiety ever growing the longer she couldn’t find the lipstick satchel. Thank god no one was around, because she was starting to lose it, mumbling explicatives to herself.

She rummaged through another bag of hers, hoping she might have stuck the tiny satchel in there. But she knew exactly where that satchel should be. It was in that bag she always put it in. It was there earlier in her journey when she reapplied her lipstick before heading to the dining car for some lunch.

"Where the hell is that damned lipstick satchel?! God damn it!" she muttered intolerantly to herself.

She frantically looked under her seat and the seat across from her. Not there. She pushed all her belongings aside. Nothing. She tossed her belongings that were on the floor up onto the seats across from her. Nothing.

She rummaged again through the bag she always puts that lipstick satchel. Oh she was growing quite angry and out-of-control now. Muttering louder and more vehemently. She pushed that little gift aside impatiently, then took her bag and turned it upside down dumping everything onto the seat next to her. She carefully put everything back into the bag. No lipstick satchel.

"God damn it! Where the hell is it?! I can’t leave here without my lipstick!" she yelled to herself.

Her train car slowly filled up during the journey inside the U.S.S.R. Thankfully, no one else heard her. The sound of the train pulling into the station and stopping made enough noise to cover up anything she yelled out.

Then it occurred to her: That young man must have taken the satchel! Where else would it be?! Oh shit. Why would he take that? Oh no! He’s a Russian spy. He was trying to take that gift and grabbed the wrong thing! "Oh. My god! Oh, my god!" she muttered in a half-muted whisper. This thought paralyzed her with intense ruminations for several minutes.

Then folks started passing her compartment, making their way off the train. She snapped out of her trance feeling the pressure to get herself together and off the train. She completely forgot she hadn’t applied her lipstick, hailed the nearest train conductor to help her gather her luggage and get off the train for the next inspection.



Chapter 4

This next inspection was just as intense as the one entering the U.S.S.R., though she was so captivated by the destitute surroundings here, she wasn’t bothered by all the questions the security asked her or all the disarray they created of all her clothes. One of the female guards did give her a peculiar look, as she looked over all the luggage my mother brought. It took much longer to go through all of her belongings than it did for other individuals, and the security here was not so tolerant at having to take the extra time for her.

She was oblivious to their impatience with her. They spoke to her in English. It was clear she was an American. They could tell that even without looking repeatedly at her U.S. passport.

Security did detain her for a while, which made her a little nervous. They asked her to step aside and wait just off to the side of the long bank of tables filled with people’s belongings and opened suitcases.

The security was speaking to each other in Russian and pointing to her, intensifying her nerves. It was clear they weren’t pleased with her. They went on to other folks waiting to go through the process of the checkpoint.

She waited for quite some time, watching nervously as other people went through the inspection process. No one else was pulled aside the entire time she waited.

Finally the whole train of people had cleared through the checkpoint. My mother was the only person left.

One of the security guards motioned to her to come back over with all her belongings. She tried gathering up all her stuff, but it was clearly impossible. Another guard huffed out loud and came over to drag the remaining luggage to one of the inspection tables.

Again, they opened all her luggage and carefully inspected each piece of clothing, compact of blush, eyeliner stick, toothpaste container and all.

One of them rattled the gift package for Kasha. It made a light clanking sound, very innocuous. My mother’s eyes widened at this, but no one noticed. She calmed down when they put the gift back down on the table.

The security guards finished combing through all her stuff and gestured that she may gather everything up and leave. They literally left her with all her belongings laying about several checkpoint tables. She had to repack everything. She didn’t want to make more of a scene than she had already, so she didn’t complain, didn’t give them a facial expression that would aggravate them into detaining her any longer.



Chapter 5

My mother was able to hail a cab and was able to get to her hotel without much ado. Thank goodness Europeans know several languages, German being the most widely used. Much more so than English.

She continued to be preoccupied with the poverty and filthiness of the city. The hotel was quite shabby and several decades behind U.S. standards and fashion. Her room was dreary, quite dark and small. There was hardly any room to walk around. All her luggage took up all the spare room, plus the small table near the window and half her bed. Good thing the bed was full size; she would have to end up sleeping on the floor.

The first thing she did when she got settled into the room the best she could was to take a bath. She pulled out of one of her toilet article cases her favorite bubble bath and turned the hot water on in the tub. She was so looking forward to a nice hot bubble bath. Next she pulled out several of her favorite bath sponges and carefully placed each one along one side of the tub. She laid out her fluffy oversized robe and new sexy slippers. She stared into the mirror and admired her reflection, caressing the outline of her figure with her hands. She then rummaged through another case for her aprËs bath oil, feeling quite relieved she was off the train, tucked away in her hotel room -- no matter how shabby -- as safe as she felt she could possibly be.

The tub was almost full of water, so she started to get in. The middle toes of her right foot, just hit the surface of the water when she realized how cold the temperature was.

She gave out a quick yelp, pulling her foot back toward her. She bent over and dipped her hand into the water. It was extremely hot.

What?! She thought. I must be hallucinating.

She shook her head to get a hold of reality, then slipped into the hot tub. Ah, this was pure heaven. Pure heaven.

Her hair was feeling greasy and dirty, so she decided to wash her hair as well. She lathered up her hair, spending a great deal of time massaging her scalp before deciding to rinse the shampoo out. She just started to wash it out of her hair, suds covering her face and neck, when all of a sudden the water went ice cold.

What a shock this was, such a shock she jerked her head upward, bumping it hard on the end of the water faucet.

She felt slightly dizzy, though was able to steady herself with her hands tightly gripping the sides of the bathtub. She groaned and let out a deep breathe, trying to regain her vision.

Meanwhile, the frigid water was still flowing into the tub bringing the overall temperature down considerably.

After a few minutes, she felt in control enough to let go of the tub and turn off the water.

She was quite livid at this point, cursing up quite a storm loudly under her hushed breath. It took her a few minutes to realize that the only way to comfortably get all the shampoo out of her hair and eyes was to dunk her head under the now lukewarm water of the tub. She did just that very begrudgingly and leapt out of the tub as quickly as possible.

Some heavenly bath that turned out to be. She was quite upset, and drying herself off with the hand towel-sized towel available to use.

These damned Russians, she thought. Don’t they have sense of what’s practical and up-to-date?!

She didn’t even bother to put on her aprËs bath oil and fluffy robe and slippers. She walked into the bedroom, found her nightgown and climbed into bed for the evening. It was 4:30 in the afternoon Moscow time. She didn’t care. She was exhausted. She literally slept until the next morning when the sun arose, shining brightly into her room.



Chapter 6

Kasha was sitting at a little table for two right in the middle of the restaurant my mother and she had agreed to meet at the next evening.

She was just as Gretchen had described her: slender, tall and extremely plain. No make-up, simply dressed, yet there was something about her that was quite striking. Perhaps it was the way she carried herself. She was a proud woman with intelligent eyes.

The two women recognized each other immediately.

My mother sat down. They spoke in German.

My mother motioned to the large bag she was carrying, ready to give Kasha the gift, but Kasha sensed what my mother was doing, and silently shook her head indicating, "No. Not here."

The conversation was lively, yet subdued. They didn’t draw any unnecessary attention to themselves. Folks at tables surrounding them in this tightly packed restaurant were busy catching up with their own dinner companions chattering away loudly. It was clearly a Saturday night. Even the dark, colorless surroundings couldn’t dampen the spirits.

Everyone was drinking heavily, vodka and scotch pretty much the only beverage of choice. Beer and wine were considered inferior beverages in The Soviet Union. No one drank them, at least not in public. Not too many places sold wine or beer. Those that did were in tourist areas, sure to get non-citizens approval.

When folks went out to eat at restaurants in the Soviet Union, they made a smorgasborg out of the occasion, buying several appetizers, side dishes and sometimes more than one entree. This was because it was difficult for Russians to buy many of these foods in grocery stores. Most foods, especially meats and fresh produce were difficult to come by. People waited many hours in line hoping to purchase something once they got to the front of the line. Waiting in line didn’t always mean, there was food left to purchase. The situation was horrific. Hoarding was quite popular, and so was canning. Though Russians might prefer fresh produce, they needed more to eat regularly.

Kasha needed no help encouraging my mother to order far more food than she could possibly eat. That was my mother’s style. In this setting, it was clear my mother was of Russian -- or at least Eastern European -- descent. The two women had quite a feast before them, not everything could fit on their table. The waitress kept a good portion of their food in the kitchen until she was sure the two women were ready for the next dish.

Most of the food was left over and they had it all boxed up. The meal was extremely cheap, not at all like what my mother would expect to spend in the States. She happily paid the entire bill, and left a tip, which Kasha told her was unnecessary and not usually done.

The two of them carted all their boxes of leftovers with them, walking several blocks to Kasha’s car. They dropped off the leftovers in Kasha’s car, and then walked back towards the restaurant and quite a few blocks beyond heading to the theater used exclusively by the Moscow Ballet Company.

They entered the theater and picked up their reserved tickets. Kasha purchased these, insisting my mother not reimburse her for them. She came all the way to Moscow. It was a treat for her. She must enjoy this rare treat.

The theater, unlike the rest of what my mother had seen in the Soviet Union, well at least in Moscow, was exquisitely detailed in its architecture and interior design. It was quite a sight, gilded ceiling and elaborate frescoes painted around the Byzantine era. My mother fell silent and spent time taking in these luscious surroundings. Spending more than a day in such a drab, colorless environment had been getting to her psyche. Now her whole attitude was uplifted just at the sight of this beautiful antiquity. A bright smile came to her lips and brought a sparkle to her dark brown eyes.

Their seats weren’t the best, yet they weren’t the worst either. They were down on the main level, yet just slightly in front of the center section, thus obscuring the back of the stage. They would be able to clearly see all the dancing at the front of the stage, but anything that happened behind that wouldn’t be seen too well.

My mother didn’t care. Damn, she was at the very theater where the Moscow Ballet performed and she was going to see them perform a non-traditional ballet just created and debuting tonight. That was far better than not seeing them at all. She had forgotten all the trauma of the past two days and settled down into her cozy theater seat.

They still had several minutes before the curtain call. The place was abuzz with folks bustling into the theater looking for their seats, chattering away while waiting for the program to begin.

While my mother and Kasha were waiting for the ballet to start, Kasha gave my mother a sign that she wanted the gift right at that very moment. My mother hesitated at first, but Kasha squeezed my mother’s arm tightly yet affectionately, so as to not alarm her. My mother went into her bag and pulled out the gift, handing it to Kasha.

Kasha immediately handed the gift to a woman sitting on the other side of her. The woman got up from her seat and made her way to the aisle most likely leaving the theater, never to return to her seat.

That was it. The deed was done. All that angst, and it was over. My mother hoped.

The lights dimmed to a darkened theater, the orchestra began playing the opening music. The curtain rose and the dancers, one-by-one, danced their way onto the stage.

Kasha took my mother’s hand and squeezed in gently yet tightly, turned to her and smiled. My mother smiled back at her. Then Kasha let go of my mother’s hand and they watched the ballet without interruption and without a care in the world.

They had successfully completed their life-threatening task. It was time to celebrate with the ballet performance before them.


Chapter 7

The rest of my mother’s trip to Moscow and the Soviet Union was calm and uneventful.

She took in many of the sites Frits, Gretchen and now Kasha had suggested to her, she headed back to Germany and East Berlin, without any trouble this time. The security guards at the Moscow train station checkpoint remembered her, actually delighted to see her. They smiled and carried on in German to her. They rushed through inspecting her belongings barely taking notice of anything this time, sending her on through to the train. This time they secured all her luggage, saving her the trouble of having to repack everything.

So different it was heading out of Moscow. How easy. How unprotected. What if she had something she was bringing back to East Berlin with her? They didn’t seem to care.

She took the long train ride back to East Germany, arriving in East Berlin. Spent a few more days with Frits before she headed back to West Germany to spend the rest of her vacation with Katerina and her family before heading back to the United States.

Two weeks after the gift exchange, she continued to hear nothing. No one seemed to be following her. She appeared to be safe and unnoticed.

It wasn’t until she came back the United States that she went through a rigorous claims inspection to get back into the country. It was just as severe as the one she had encountered at the Moscow train station, only it was worse. They kept her for several days. They made her stay in a holding unit, very much like a jail cell. There were other U.S. citizens there and many others from foreign countries. All there because they were suspected of communist espionage.

They took her to an isolated room without any windows and one light hanging from the ceiling in the center of the room, very much like you’d see in a movie when the interrogation scene arrives. Several representatives of the CIA came into the room. They grilled her about everything she did that entire trip.

They turned her into a whimpering fool. She tried telling them everything she did. She did mention that she had given a friend a gift while she was in Moscow, but she told them she had purchased it herself. She told them it was a wristwatch she had purchased at the Neiman Marcus in Las Vegas. She wanted to bring something special to her friend in Moscow who had so little. Was it not only the proper thing to do, but also the right thing to do? After all, her friend had purchased tickets to the Moscow ballet, treating my mother to a lovely and cutting-edge production.

They continued to question her. She pleaded to them to let her use the bathroom; she had to go so badly. A guard came in with a little bucket for her to go in. Everyone turned around while she went. They didn’t even have the common courtesy to leave the room. How rude, she screamed in her thoughts.

They interrogated her some more. She was getting weak with hunger and begged for something to eat. They brought in the clichÈ piece of bread and water. They weren’t going to let her go without the information they wanted to hear from her. But she didn’t know what they wanted. She tried to tell them everything.

They went on and on, and tortured her verbally. They didn’t hurt her physically, yet. They only deprived her of the basic human needs, unless she begged enough.

Then without warning, a tall dark-haired woman dressed in mom’s favorite designer, DKNY, abruptly entered the room.

She yelled at the CIA agents in Russian at the top of her lungs. They cowered a bit in front of her. She finished her rant, smiled at my mother, turned around and walked just as abruptly out the door, slamming it forcefully behind her.

One of the agents came over to my mother and apologetically said to her, "We’re sorry, Mame. We thought you were the woman we were looking for. It turns out we were looking for Toni James, not Tobi James. You may collect all your belongings and go now. We’re terribly sorry for any inconvenience we may have caused you."

Nancy JonesFrancis | Copyright 2002



( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 28th, 2007 10:21 pm (UTC)
cool story!!
Sep. 30th, 2007 01:34 am (UTC)
Thanks, Rothko!

I like it, but not sure how it would be received by others. My husband likes it. But he's been the only one to read it, before publishing it here.
Sep. 28th, 2007 10:22 pm (UTC)
Nice story. Thanks for posting it. I didn't imagine the ending till you got right there to it.
Sep. 30th, 2007 01:32 am (UTC)
Cool. Thanks, M.

I've had that story hanging around for several years now. It's something I wrote when attempting to complete the 50,000-word count for NaNoWriMo. You could say it was a segway in a much larger story.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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