When I thought about it a little longer, I realized there’s more to it than that. I’ve read mountains of Russian literature, and built up an internet search history I wouldn’t want my mother or the police to see. I’ve wandered all over Moscow, lurking in its hotels, visiting its oldest film studio, and casing the US Ambassador’s residence. I visited the set of a Russian TV show, and got yelled at by the director. I convinced a friend to let me film her wedding, even though my prior experience as a wedding videographer was entirely imaginary. I cold called my ex-boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend (whom I’d met twice, ten years before) and got her to tell me about her childhood in Russia. And, most recently, I tagged along for a friend’s AA meeting in Moscow.
The idea came about when I was at the banya last weekend with a friend, who we’ll call Lena. In the two years since I’d last seen her, she’d picked up a rather stubborn heroin addiction; she’s been in and out of rehab three times in the last 18 months. She’s three months clean, but she finds AA meetings helpful to stay on track. When I asked her what Russian AA was like, she suggested I come along to the next meeting.
“Is that a thing? People bring friends with them for moral support?”
“Not really. It’ll be easier if you just say you’re an alcoholic, too.”
I wasn’t going to say no to a personal invite, so it was agreed that I would join Lena for her next AA meeting.
On Monday night, I found myself in the basement of an elementary school, in a classroom crammed with 25 adults. Lena and I were running late, but that didn’t mean I was exempt from introducing myself.
“Hi, I’m Dzhessika, and I’m an alkogolichka.”
For the first half hour, there was a guest speaker. She talked about her battle with alcoholism, an attempted suicide, the death of the father of her child, and how she finally realized she had no choice but to get sober. It was dark and deeply personal stuff. I might have felt guilty about invading her privacy and breaking the trust of the group, but I was only understanding about 75% of what she was saying anyway. For example, I spent a good portion of the night trying to figure out what trezvost’ meant. “Sobriety,” it turns out.
After the meeting, Lena and I stuck around so she could say hi to her friend Dasha.* Dasha is two years sober, and was thrilled that I had taken the first step in the road to recovery—so thrilled that she asked the question I’d been dreading: “What brought you here?”
I had come up with a number of inventive backstories, but I couldn’t bring myself to use any of them. Why? Because I’m a terrible liar. I can’t handle the guilt that accompanies deceit, and I undercut my occasional lies with immediate confessions. The great irony is that I am a fantastic liar when I’m drinking. Give me a couple shots, and I will lie with enthusiasm and aplomb. But that’s usually not an option in the middle of an AA meeting. So what did I say?
“I’ve seen how good it’s been for Lena, and wanted to see what it was all about.” My answer was technically true, if not a little evasive.
Dasha pressed further. “When was your last drink? Was it in Moscow?”
Of course it was. It was an expertly made lime and basil affair at Bar Mitzva on Friday night.
“Yeah,” I said, hanging my head in shame. “It was.”
This seemed to convince Dasha I was the real deal. She gave me a sympathetic look—the kind you would give a raging alcoholic who still won’t admit she has a problem.
“I hope we see you back here again.”
No, Dasha, you really don’t. There’s no way I could keep up this charade—not without a few stiff drinks.
I thought this would be the end of it. In a city of 12 million, you'd think I'd be safe from running into anyone from that group again, right?
I ran into Dasha a week later, just as I was walking out of a building owned by the Russian government. This was, incidentally, another novel-related recon mission. I had joined up with a tour of nine Russian ladies, all of whom, presumably, wanted to know the history of the building. I, on the other hand, was trying to get a straight answer on how one would get access to the rooftop terrace that plays host to a crucial scene in my novel.
Dasha asked me how the sobriety was going, and I gave her another cagey answer—the kind that left her more convinced than ever that I needed her help. She made me take her number, and encouraged me to call her for support. I took it and told her I’d be in touch. After all, I was going to need an explanation if the Russian authorities stopped me and wanted to know why I had photos of the floor plans of government buildings on my phone. And then my well-documented alcoholism might be just the cover story I needed.
*Name has been changed.