This place invokes no memory of childhood. If it does it is one that is buried or imagined—what I thought “far away” was when I lay in bed at night as a girl. At times, you can feel the air burning. And if it doesn’t burn, it is still warm and thin outdoors, then heavy with the smell of food as you descend into the basement cafes to get out of the heat, to press your face against cold glasses of liquid floating with mint and tarragon, light currents of sulfur wafting in from the bathhouses across town each time someone walks in the door. Outside, the dogs lay across the sidewalk all day as though they are dead. The subtle emissions of dirt rise up from their fur into the air with all the other strange perfumes—the dust kicked up by the old women sweeping leaves across the road, the cigarette smoke puffing from the mouths of the men sitting on corners, the pale shades of cheap soap from the linens hanging on the clothes lines above the courtyards, the exhaust pipes of the ramshackle taxis heading nowhere.
Cities are creatures of the senses. There is a Tbilisi we each imagine and another we experience. Here the doors of passage into the secret alleyways are hidden as they are in other places, only to be chanced upon, never directly sought out. Still, we look for traces of the fantasy, glimpse into dark houses with deteriorating staircases, filled with the dormant musk of flowers pressed into the pages of books, books left unread in the stack that one keeps adding to despite not having the time. In Tbilisi there is nothing but time, a slowness to the days no New Yorker could ever imagine. Like other foreigners, I know few words of the language. I pass the same mannequin in the window each day. The ensemble speaks to me though the figure can’t. I have walked by the shop countless times, past the Armenian turrets of the Opera house on the grand boulevard and the Soviet buildings glinting in the sun under the silver shadow of the Mother of Georgia. I have strayed this way and that like the cats that fill the windowsills. I have been to the monastery at the top of the mountain. I have lain among strangers by the Turtle Lake, lingered on the rusted balcony and in the midnight bedroom, eaten trout with pomegranate sauce and been drunk on orange wine. Some days there is a smile exchanged with another person passing through the crowd, a little flag we both raise of some human connection, knowing all beautiful melancholy cities are best discovered when walked alone.
When you come to a foreign place it is often difficult to sleep. There is a beauty to the jet lag, things to be seen at unusual hours, which you become witness to because you are accidentally awake, privy to what only the city cleaners know, always first to see the town. One night, an ambulance pulled up to the house with its lights flashing. I lay there in the dark as all the women in the surrounding houses came to their windows, dressed in Old Europe nightgowns. I watched them and went to the window too, but when I looked out below there was no activity, just the stopped vehicle breathing its red and blue shadows over the road. I heard voices on the sidewalk, talking under my window. “Is anyone home?” one of the old women said in English. So I put on my robe and went down the stairs to open the door. But when they discerned I was American they shooed me back inside.
“We represent empires. We carry them with us wherever we go,” says Polina the next day, as we sit at the table together, in the Writer’s House that no writers from the region will enter. We talk of postcards, pass around images of Leningrad. We ponder the lines between private and public spaces. We enter the apocalyptic imagination. We listen to the sky, as if waiting for the sound of war planes or the streetcar that isn’t there anymore. “What do you write from the city of death?” Polina asks. People have sent postcards for the purpose of trying to locate each other, to relay the message of at least “I am alive.” She tells us of a young girl who received a postcard from her mother during the siege and knew simply from observing her trembling penmanship that something was terribly wrong.
I want to confess that I have begun a campaign of sending blank postcards to a person who used to be in my life. The silence within the square of paper is in itself a message, placed on the back of a picture of some imagined distance. The only words written on it is the address, which I always ask someone else to write so my handwriting won’t be recognized. There has been one from the Arabian Desert and one from the Caucasus Mountains, both places I never thought I’d see. The next would have been dispatched from the far north, but there has been another apocalypse since I made those plans. I have wondered if my messages have been received. And who I have sent them to? In what century?