Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
I go to Diamond Head No. 2, a Chinese restaurant run by a Vietnamese man in a predominantly black area of Fort Smith to meet good ol' white Southern boy Mike and his Russian wife, Katarina (their names have been changed per her request). I first met the two of them when I went to a concealed handgun carry class that Mike taught. An instructor certified by the Arkansas State Police (and former NRA instructor as well), Mike doesn't know how many guns he owns these days.
"North of 100, but I'm really not sure," he explains of his private arsenal, which he showed Katarina on Skype before he ever visited her. "But I did have a Soviet wall!"
"That didn't scare you away?" I wonder, shoveling rice into my mouth.
"I knew that he collected guns," she says. "It was interesting. He showed me his room."
"She was proud because of the Kalashnikovs!" Mike proclaims.
"Oh yes, of course," Katarina affirms, pulling her brown patterned silk scarf around her shoulders like a shawl.
"Mikhail Kalashnikov was a national treasure in the Soviet Union. We just piss all over our firearms designers, and try to ban the products. See, in the Soviet Union, they taught them how to shoot," Mike says.
"Who is 'they'?" I ask, bewildered. "Who taught you how to shoot?"
"Teacher," she replies airily. "You have special subject in school. They teach us how. I was 15."
"Such a late bloomer," Mike coos. "I was 6." He expounds upon the Russians' school use of Kalashnikovs, and the students' instruction in disassembling and cleaning the weapons, with great joy and pride.
By wearing his camo-print button-down shirt tucked in, Mike's gun, in its holster attached to his belt, is in plain sight. With her auburn hair secured into a ponytail with a velour scrunchie, Katarina's diamond and sapphire hoop earrings and heart-shaped diamond necklace glint in the ambient lighting of the restaurant. They seem like just about any newlywed couple: They hold hands, exchange pecks. Katarina giggles when he shows me pictures on his phone of her digging for "gems" in Mount Ida ("It was wonderful!" she exclaims).
"I like him. I love him. It is chemistry," she proclaims, and I believe her. Only a much more cynical person than I would not believe her, although, admittedly, I repeatedly refer to her in my conversations with my husband as "the Russian bride." And, in a way, she is exactly that: the modern incarnation of mail order.
Katarina was born in Volzhsk in the Mari El Republic of Russia. Located a little less than 500 miles from Moscow, Volzhsk is a town of about 55,000 people that, according to Trip Advisor, has six attractions — four of which are churches. Before coming to America, Katarina lived in Volzhsk her whole life, where her parents, who finished technical college (equal to approximately the first year of the American university system), were employed as "engineers" in a local factory. Her father died of a heart attack when Katarina was 5, and in the 40 years since, her mother never remarried. "She loves my father," Katarina explained simply.
It was this same idea of love that drove Katarina to look for a match on the Internet. "I look for suitors — relationship. And, you know, it is difficult for somebody through Internet. Dialogue different. When people correspond with you, you understood who is who, and you understood what people look for. Men sent you interest through email. I start conversation with them, but then I understood ..."
They weren't what she was looking for. Those first five or so men she talked to, from Europe and Australia, just didn't make the cut. She talked to a couple of her friends who had met Americans (one is currently living in Florida, the other in Maine) and they encouraged her to look for an American through a website called Elena's Models ("Beautiful Russian Girls of Model Quality," the website proclaims). "You know, Russian men different. They like drink, and they doesn't take care their family. I made decision. I look for American guy."
Luckily for her, Mike, having already begun his search for love online, was striking out with European women. "I had been on vacation to the Czech Republic to see if I could put up with my Czech girlfriend at her house. And I could not. She wanted me to get a haircut like a shark's fin, and squat to pee, and be just a Euro-fag metrosexual. So, right before I left, she said, 'Perhaps you should find Russian woman who appreciates the way you live.' I had been on Elena's Models off and on for years, but I figured anytime there's a 23-year-old smokin' hot Russian woman sending me an email, it's a hairy-knuckled man in his basement trying to scam money. That said, Elena's works real hard to keep the scammers out. So I got an email through the website from Katarina. Well, I went and looked at it, and she was, you know, 43 years old, no children, and she said, 'Would you like to talk? Would you like to Skype?' "
Hearing their story through his point of view, Katarina nods and mmhmmms as Mike continues.
"Well, you can't lie on Skype. So I thought, well, you know, for 15 bucks, I'll see. So we started to Skype. The first time that we were on there I showed her my hair," that it was not like a shark's fin, "showed her my house with the iPad, and the arms room. I didn't wanna waste anybody's time. You know, an American woman that goes in there and sees that is either gonna see dollar signs or just, you know, fly off because she's a nutjob liberal. And, all that was fine."
They went on to Skype for almost a year. But it wasn't until Mike went on safari in South Africa and he couldn't talk to her every day that he realized he wanted something more. "We could talk on the cell phone, when I'd get up on top of a mountain. And then she's like, 'Whoa! You have special clothes to kill exotic animals in!' So I decided, well, I needed to go and make sure she was for real and didn't have an Adam's apple. So I took another week off and went to Russia. No Adam's apple."
"Oh my God," Katarina groans.
Meeting Katarina in person was the first of many steps in the process of making the relationship real — and legal. According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the fiancee visa (a K-1 nonimmigrant visa) allows a fiancee to enter the country for 90 days so that a marriage ceremony may take place. The couple must have met in person within two years of filing the petition. Mike went to Russia around the last week of June 2013 and got his passport stamped for proof. Two weeks after he returned to the States, he filed for the visa. "That's another, like $900, and reams of paperwork. I thought about just flying her in to Nueva Laredo — walking her across the border."
One requirement they were not aware of (and is not listed on the Immigration Services website): a physical for Katarina. "She had to travel from Volzhsk to Moscow, which was what — a nine-hour one-way train trip? To go get her physical and go to the embassy to get interviewed. And then the assholes made her take another one when she got here! Another $400."
I begin to tally up costs in my head — from Mike taking additional time off work, to his plane ticket to Russia, Katarina's two physicals and fiancee visa and train trips and plane tickets, not to mention the fees he paid for membership to Elena's Models. "You must really like her," I declare.
"Yeah," he confirms.
"I am diamond," Katarina supplies.
Once married, according to the Immigration Services website, the foreign spouse may apply for permanent residence and remain in the United States while the green card application is being processed — yet another step Mike was ignorant of. "Silly us, you know, we figured that once you actually got married, that the clock stopped on the 90 days. So in January (2014) we got the marriage license. And then we went over to the thing, 'cause it was like, well, how would they know? You've obviously gotta tell somebody. And then some bitch over at the immigration place said, 'Oh! Well, that doesn't mean anything! She's just — she's only got 90 days or she won't have a status. She can't stay here indefinitely with no status.' And I said, 'Well, that's not the plan, you know, but that's not how we understood it.' And then she said, 'Well, it's only a $1,010' or something like that and I said, 'Well, you know, in your boss' economy, that's a lot of money.' So then we had to come up with the money to change her status, from K-1 to resident alien. The Fort Smith immigration office is so poor in customer service they're under investigation. The way they act — they wear their nametags turned around so you can't report 'em."
When it comes to diamonds, I guess you get what you pay for. Katarina seems to be quite the sparkling diamond to me. An only child, she graduated from medical college to become a nurse. For 15 years she worked in the medical field, serving as an ER nurse, where she had to treat gunshot wounds. As revered as the medical profession is in America, however, it held no prestige in Russia, and the poor pay matched the lack of respect. Katarina went on to nearby Kazan University to study Russian language and literature, eventually becoming a Russian college teacher. Throughout it all, she lived with her mother. A 68-year-old retiree, her mother lives alone now that Katarina has moved to the States.
"She is my best friend," Katarina laments. "I miss my mom. Not country, but my mom." She tries to soften the blow by talking to her mother every single day. She visited her mother for a month in August, right after she received her green card. It is unlikely, however, that Katarina's mom will return the favor: "It's a long way. Long flight." Which means that Katarina's mom will most likely spend the rest of her days living alone in the small flat they shared, which Katarina loved.
"My flat not big. Is small. It is two bedroom. And living room and bathroom. One bathroom. Kitchen, hall, balcony and toilet. And also, we have garden. I love gardening. In Russia I have sweet apples tree and arugula, and some vegetables like you can raise, like tomato. I like strawberry. We have pink strawberry — nice — and cherries, gooseberries, oh my God!" She pulls out her digital camera to show me pictures.
Besides her mother, the only thing Katarina misses from her old country is food. "What do you miss most, food-wise?" I ask her. Mike jumps in: "All of it. It was an adventure at first. When she first got here, I was in Dallas for the Dallas Safari Club convention, so I flew her in to Dallas so I could just drive her the rest of the way home and cut one airport off that she'd have to deal with. So, the first night, I knew that she liked soup, so we went to Pappadeaux's and I got her gumbo. She didn't like it. Too spicy. So, next night, I had a banquet at a barbecue place, so I ordered her smoked chicken, because I knew she liked chicken. 'It's not done! Look! It's raw! It's pink! It's raw!' So I knew that by the next day, she'd eat something 'cause she hadn't ate in two days. We went to — what was it? — Salvatore's Pizza in Dallas, which is like a neighborhood pizza joint." Mike imitates Katarina in falsetto: "'Oh, pizza. I don't like pizza. I don't want pizza.' So we ordered a special chicken Parmesan dinner for her and everyone else ate pizza. See, I've ate pizza in South Africa, I've had pizza in Czech Republic, I've had pizza in Russia, and it all sucks."
Katarina retorts, "I love Larry's Pizza here."
"And she'll eat Pizza Parlor pizza."
"Larry's Pizza's the best," she corrects.
"And she now likes barbecue!" Mike proclaims.
"I told him that someday I will be a real American woman."
Now that's a prediction I bet Mike hopes will never come true. He told me he gave up on finding an American mate as "the local gene pool is not very deep or far across. Every woman's got three kids by five daddies, and she's still pissed at the last one. And it's just, you know, I just gave up on it." It's pretty obvious he prefers the Russian cultural mores: "Women are feminine. Everybody doesn't have a tattoo. Everybody wears real clothes to go out. You don't see people in flip-flops and pajamas. It is much more conservative."
But it's not just that Mike finds the culture more attractive; a first marriage at the tender age of 21 left a bad taste in his mouth.
"He was young and stupid," Katarina explains.
"Yes, dear, I was," he concurs.
"Oh, this age," Katarina recalls, "I study. I never think about marriage so young. When I was this age, I thought I will marry maybe 30, 35, maybe 40. Not early, like he."
"Yeah, it wasn't one of my sharpest moves."
"He was fool love."
The two of them seem pretty foolishly in love to me, as Mike proudly shows me a video of Katarina shooting an automatic rifle. So what's next for these fools? "Do you want kids?" I ask.
"Boiled," Mike retorts. "No, I've been there and done that and I don't want any more. I have one. My daughter lives in Fayetteville with the other fruits and nuts. And my granddaughter lives down here with her father. My daughter is of the opinion that her childhood was as bad as the Vietnam War because she now suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome from it."
"Fruits? Nuts?" Katarina asks.
This is not the first time I'm afraid she doesn't really know what's going on around her in this English-language world. While she took German in college and English in university, she is still learning our language. She asks why I'm interviewing her, and she nods and smiles vacantly when I try to explain that I'm a story collector — that I like to hear interesting tales and to write them up for others to read. When I asked her if she taught Chekhov in her Russian literature courses, she replied, "No," and I thought surely this must be due to a misunderstanding of my pronunciation rather than a neglect of the man who was best beloved by the Russian literati, second only to Tolstoy. It is Mike's Southern twang that Katarina seems to hear best.
Overall, Katarina is happy here. "I like people. I like culture. I like States. I feel comfortable here."
And she has her man, who seems hopelessly devoted to her, in his way. "I believe that there's a 90 percent success rate with international marriages. And I think that part of that has to do with just the sheer bullshit you have to go through together in order to get everything done. Both people have too much invested to ... make it fail."
Mike had to pay for the agency's introduction services, but Katarina did not. "I was to look for somebody who will be with me in my life," Katarina explains.
"You wanted forever?" I ask.
"Yes, of course." She giggles as she looks through more pictures of Russia, of her mother, of digging for gemstones.
"He promise me that he always will remember that I'm diamond for him."
Mike is excellent as the hen-pecked hangdog: "Yes, dear."
"If one day he forget about it, he lose me!" she proclaims in the lightest tone imaginable.
"Yes, sir!" Mike replies with the deference of a Russian soldier.
He better get it right this time. It could be that not all diamonds are forever.
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