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[a story]

There has been a photo doing the rounds on the Internet showing citizens of Magnitogorsk hanging out by some graffiti-strewn wall that overlooks the city. There are three women, drinking and smoking, and in the foreground, a small child runs past the photographer. Perhaps one of the women is the mother of the child. The photo rather invites that interpretation—it wants to provoke a judgment. How irresponsible to be drinking in front of a kid! In the background is the city. Smoke belches from countless chimneys, the sky is the colour of ashes—the stereotypical depressing spectacle.

Even though the photo doesn’t exactly make my spirits soar, it does elicit a feeling in me that… well, how can I describe it? It couldn’t be nostalgia—not for a place I’ve never even visited. No, the feeling is one of yearning. North America used to have scenes of hellish industry like this, and now they’re almost all gone. The economy looks so sanitary nowadays—it’s all Wal-Marts and Office Depots and multiplexes and Starbucks. If you’re poor and trashy, you’re supposed to hide it and feel awful about yourself. And being a worker involves so much smiling. It’s unbearable.

I visited Poland once. In cafes, restaurants, and at the airport, they rarely smile at you. It’s glorious! I hope they keep it up. It’ll be a sad day if they ever import our soulless cheerfulness.

Magnitogorsk is another place I’d like to visit. If only I could speak Russian! I’d go to the bar and watch people get drunk and try to listen to as many stories as possible. Even if life looks tough in that photo, I am confident there would be laughs in Magnitogorsk! I’d put money on it.

I imagine bringing a beautiful mail-order bride from Magnitogorsk to my home in North America. At first she might be happy. The air here would be clean and we could go walking down by the river and admire the blue water. We could visit all sorts of eating places that are not too pricey and that serve an appetizing meal. For her birthday, all the wait staff would bring out a cake and sing to her! We could go to the shopping malls and buy her necklaces and sweaters. We would hold hands in the movie theatre and share a Coke and a popcorn!

But I imagine, after a few years, that the smile on my mail-order bride’s face would become somewhat strained. She’d lose that initial euphoria. There would be moments when she’d dearly miss Russia. She’d go back for visits more and more often. We’d start to bicker. I’d yell, “We simply can’t afford for you to go back a second time this year to Magnitogorsk! There’s no way! Not on my income!”

After clearing all the usual bureaucratic hurdles, my mail-order bride would find herself a job—maybe cleaning linen in a downtown hotel. Then the true reality of North American life would sink in! She’d find herself in a windowless food court every noon hour, trying to choose between a donair, a Greek salad, or a burger and fries. Or if we lived more abstemiously, she’d be unwrapping a cheese and tomato sandwich from greaseproof paper. She’d text me: don’t forget to buy more cat litter on the way home. That box is starting to stink!

She’d come to my Christmas staff party and I’d go to hers. One of my co-workers would flirt with her a little too much. “That accent is so sexy!” he might well think to himself. At her Christmas party, I’d get drunk and on the way home I’d make fun of people. “That mole on Julie’s temple is like a second head!” I’d smirk. And then my mail-order bride would get protective. “Julie is a good friend,” she would say. “She covered my shift when I was too depressed to work.” “What do you mean you were too depressed to work?” I’d ask her. See, it’s in moments like this that the truth sneaks out! “You told me you had stomach cramps.”

“No, I was depressed, and I’m still depressed now,” she would reply. “More than ever. I thought North America was the promised land but it’s hardly that! I don’t want to work anymore, but if I stop working, I’ll be even more bored than ever—and I’ll never get to see Magnitogorsk, not, as you say, on your income. I used to spend my whole life wanting to be in another place, and now it’s no different. I miss the view over Magnitogorsk, I miss those women I used to drink with, smoke with, laugh with! We understood each other. We understood it was useless to work hard. There is no future in it! But here in North America, everyone is always talking about working hard to get to a better place. Julie says, ‘We’re saving up for a condo.’ Marco says, ‘I’m getting a new car next year.’ It’s always the same conversations. When there’s a staff party, everyone has two drinks and says thank you to Mr. Tremblay, the boss, and then goes home. We all act so nice to Mr. Tremblay, and smile at him, but it’s all fake. I get in trouble when I don’t smile. It’s ridiculous. For eleven dollars an hour, they think they can buy a smile! No amount of money will pay for my smile!

“You know what? You will never have the obedient, good natured wife you pined for. You thought I’d be forever overjoyed and grateful to you for saving me from Magnitogorsk. Well, we should have done this the opposite way around. I should have brought you to Magnitogorsk and saved you from North America!”

This is how I imagine my experience with a Russian mail-order bride.

And so I will go to Magnitogorsk instead. I will find a wife there and we will live with her aging parents. I’ll tell her tales of North America—of the wide-open spaces, the Rocky Mountains, the all-you-can-eat buffets, and the view from the top of the CN Tower. I’ll have a lifetime of stories to tell. When my savings are starting to run out, I’ll get an honest job in the steel mill. I’ll lift heavy machinery and get strong. I’ll smoke cigarettes with black tobacco inside. I’ll sneak a flask of vodka into my overalls. I will work hard and my wife and I will live on the promise of one day visiting North America. I’ll tell her about all the things we can do. “We’ll shop at Macy’s! We’ll see a show on Broadway! We’ll do a tour of the Napa Valley and get drunk in somebody’s wine cellar!”

At night, we’ll hold each other and watch through the window as the light turns from white to grey to black. The snow will start falling, illuminated in the exterior streetlight. There will be stray dogs barking and cats howling at each other. We will never venture out past nine because at such an hour only thieves and rapists walk the streets. In the room next door, we’ll hear her father’s hacking cough. He’ll be dying of emphysema, having repeatedly refused his wife’s pleas to stop smoking. In Magnitogorsk, no one will be happier than us.

 Top photo: @REUTERS Sergey Karpuhin