When Yolanda Renee and Denise Covey, the hosts of the WEP website, settled on the two themes for our October blog hop – Constellations or Halloween – at first I thought to opt out. I didn’t want to write anything obvious and didn’t have any original ideas. Then I remembered something that happened long ago, when I was a schoolgirl. By a strange coincidence, there is a constellation in this story, although it has nothing to do with stars or Greek myths. It is all about tomatoes.
When I was a child in the 1960s, my family lived in Moscow, Russia. Both my parents worked full time, so finding a good summer camp for their daughter was an ongoing concern. Most camps were in the Moscow suburbs, and every summer, when my parents did send me to a summer camp, I hated it. I’ve always disliked crowds, parties, and organized entertainment. I’ve never been a tin soldier, never fit well among my peers. Making friends has always been a chore for me. I usually preferred to stay home alone, snuggle on my sofa, and read a book – the activity not encouraged in a camp.
The year I turned 12 my dad worked for a prestigious government ministry, and the organization had an excellent summer camp for its employees’ children on the shore of the Black Sea. When my dad asked if I wanted to go, I agreed. It would be the first time for me on the Black Sea, and I was excited. I thought that a camp on a seashore would be different, that I’d like the adventure and the sea.
I was wrong. Despite the sea and the sun, I hated the camp, the same as any other camp I’d ever been to, with one serious difference. It was far away from Moscow, so my parents couldn’t visit on the weekends. And the term was longer, six weeks instead of the usual three.
I started sending teary letters to my parents on the first week of camp, begging them to get me back home. When they, upset by my letters, called the camp office and asked to speak to me (no cell phones or emails in those times) I cried on the phone and pleaded with them.
Eventually they folded. About three weeks into the camp, they bought me a train ticket to Moscow – air travels were too expensive then. The camp supervisor took me to the train station and watched me boarding the train. My parents would be meeting me in Moscow.
I was ecstatic to be going home and to travel by myself for the first time in my life. The trip to Moscow took two nights and one day. Fortunately, my ticket was for a good sleeper coach, with a row of closed compartments along a long corridor. I saw a similar one in the movie Murder on the Orient Express, based on Agatha Christie’s novel. Each compartment had four sleeping banks, two on the top level and two on the bottom; the latter serving as seats during the day.
My companions in the compartment were three middle-aged men, all traveling alone. Two of them didn’t pay me much attention. By comparison, the third one, a big swarthy fellow from Georgia, was very friendly. He was traveling to Moscow to sell his tomatoes in the Moscow markets. He told me that his tomatoes were of the most delicious sort, called Constellation, because they grew in big clusters. He had boxes of them stashed someplace on the train.
Whenever I settled on my lower bank during the day, to read or gaze out the window, he would be there too, chatting amicably, telling stories, making me laugh, and occasionally touching my bare knees or caressing my ankles. It was hot on the train, and I wore shorts. Both other men spent most of the day out of the stuffy compartment, but I had nowhere to go.
The Georgian tomato seller obviously liked my bare legs, and although I disliked his touch, I was a naive 12-year-old, very polite and timid, and I couldn’t say “No” to such an amusing man as old as my father. I squirmed, tried to conceal my revulsion, and endured his grabby hands. In the evening, the two other men came back, so nothing happened. I guess I was lucky.
When we arrived in Moscow in the morning of the second day, my parents came to my compartment to get me. The Georgian guy instantly made friends with my dad, and dad even helped him unload his Constellation tomatoes, boxes and boxes of them.
When we finally got home, I was happy. I also told my mother about the Georgian guy touching my knees. I wasn’t complaining exactly, it was more like a shameful question: was it normal? Should I have said anything? Done anything?
She was horrified, much more than I was, probably because she could well picture what could’ve been, while I couldn’t. She instantly shared her disgust with my dad. He went ballistic. “You should’ve told me right away,” he fumed. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him this furious, before or after. “I helped that scoundrel to unload his Constellations. I should’ve painted the constellations on his face. I should’ve smashed all his boxes and all his tomatoes, and his nose too. The cad! I should’ve beaten him bloody.”
I was scared of my father that day, even though he wasn’t angry with me. I think this tiny incident stuck in my memory not because of the guy touching my knees – I would’ve forgotten it in a few years – but because of my parents’ explosive reaction. I really understood it only years later.
By the mutual agreement between me and my parents, I’ve never gone to any summer camp again.
Word count: 900; FCA (Full Critique Acceptable)