Going back for something you forgot after closing the front door of your house can jinx you. My family holds this superstition sacred — second only to spitting over the left shoulder and knocking on wood. It’s bad luck to return and, in case you absolutely, absolutely have to, you must look in the mirror. I’m not sure if the bad luck diminishes in scope if you come back a little later — like say fifteen or twenty minutes after you left — but I stay clear of testing it. I always look in the mirror.
The morning we left Moscow forever was the absolute worst day to return for something forgotten. According to my mother, no amount of looking in the mirror could protect us from the misfortune that awaited us should I turn that key, open that door, and walk back in. We had just locked up the apartment when I remembered that I left my favorite scarf behind. It was almost the end of October, and even though it was unusually sunny for Moscow, the temperatures hovered only a few digits above zero. Besides we were leaving for good. If I didn’t go back, I’d never see my scarf.
My mother stood next to me shaking her head, but I was determined.
“I’ll look in the mirror three times,” I said. “Or even five?” If taking that mirror with me were an option, I would have agreed to that too. Mom shook her head again, rolled her eyes, and then even half-closed them for emphasis.
“Do you absolutely need it?” she asked.
I nodded furiously.
“All right,” she said. “But you understand that the last thing we want now is more bad luck?”
I nodded again, although this time less furiously.
Things hadn’t quite gone as planned during our last month in the country, so I understood my mother’s fears. We had our exit visas. We had the airline tickets. We’d even submitted all audiotapes we owned for customs inspection when the unthinkable happened. Ten days before our departure my grandmother, babushka Bette, had a stroke and died. The evening we got the news, we sat down together in the kitchen — the place of choice for soul searching in every Soviet household — and looked at each other. Do we still go? Now that we lost one very important person, do we still continue what we started? And if we do, how do we arrange the funeral, change the required documents, and grieve enough to leave forever — all within the space of ten days?
Babushka Bette, along with my grandfather, was my most vocal supporter when I first began lobbying my parents to leave. She considered emigration to be the only possible future for Soviet Jews, and she first tried to persuade my parents to leave when her nephew left, ten years prior. My father refused to discuss it then, but as years went by she kept trying. Every anti-Semitic remark on the street, every caricature of a Jew in a major newspaper, every bit of disheartening information about Jewish quotas in universities convinced her further and further that our future wasn’t in Russia. She even tried — although failed — to locate her long-lost family, which left for Argentina one year before the 1917 Russian Revolution.
During that trip, one of the daughters missed the train the family was taking from Daugavpils in the Russian Pale to the port of Libau, with Buenos Aires as the final destination. She stepped out to get some water, and when she came back, the train with her parents and siblings was disappearing in the distance. At twelve, when I first heard that story, I was sure I knew the reason of her misfortune: She must have returned for something and forgotten to look in the mirror as she was departing from their house. Her failure to heed the superstition caused the bad luck that left her completely on her own at sixteen, having to build a life in the USSR while the rest of her family lived in a Western country. She died without ever seeing any of them again.
The daughter who missed the train was my great grandmother, babushka Bette’s mother. My grandmother always thought it was our destiny to repeat her mother’s trip — this time successfully. When my father finally agreed to go, a year before babushka Bette died, she was the first to complete her application for an exit visa. Yet her health was no longer what it used to be, and although we hoped that access to Western health care would save her, we were ten days too late. And so, unfortunately for my grandmother, she — just like her own mother seventy-somewhat years before her — wasn’t going to make it out of Russia. But, after talking through the night, we were all in agreement: We had to honor my grandmother’s memory by leaving.
When I unlocked the door of our home to retrieve my scarf, I thought of just how much had changed in one month. Our apartment now looked as if a horde of Mongol invaders had ransacked it. Books were piled high in every corner; dishes occupied the only remaining table in the kitchen; blankets, pillows, and linen littered the floor; and clothes were scattered around in a haphazard fashion. Soviet authorities allowed us to take only two suitcases each, and since packing an entire life into two suitcases was a feat reserved only for clowns in cars, we were leaving behind almost everything we owned.
Our family, a strong cohesive unit for as long as I could remember, had been undone with one grandmother in a fresh grave, a grieving grandfather, and another set of grandparents wondering if they’d ever see us again. The majority of our friends had no idea that the phone in our apartment would no longer be answered come Monday. None of the neighbors knew we were on our way out of the country forever. The secrecy wasn’t unusual — that’s how most Jews left the USSR in the 1980s. Disappearing out of people’s lives made it easier for them and for us. We didn’t have to smile politely, nod, and mentally roll our eyes when they gave us lists of items they wanted us to send. And they didn’t have to fear a visit from the KGB. What if the fact that they knew about our departure could get them in trouble? We were a liability.
Despite the chaos in the apartment, I found the scarf and was taking my third glance into the mirror when the phone rang. I froze. Who could be calling us on Sunday morning — our last morning in Moscow? Should I answer the phone? And, if I did, how would that affect the luck I’d probably already damaged by returning for my scarf? But then I realized that this would be the last time I’d ever answer the phone in my apartment, so I thought: Why not?
“Alo?” I said.
“Hey,” a young man’s voice responded. “Recognize me?”
“It’s Mironov,” he said. “I am just back and thought I’d call and see how things are. How is everyone in our group?”
I pulled a small washing machine that doubled as a stool closer to the phone. I had to sit down for this one. How uncanny it was that Kostya Mironov was calling me now, a minute before I was to leave my apartment forever. Kostya was a school classmate for ten years and a regular at parties where I spent many a night during the last year of school and the first year of university. We had been a close-knit group — a group that fell apart at the end of that first year. All boys were conscripted into the Red Army for their mandatory service. They left our reality; we went on with our lives, and now, two years later, they were coming back, one by one, still reminiscing about the old times but oblivious to the fact that we have moved on.
“Good,” I said. “Everyone is good.” Although I occasionally saw some people from that group, for the most part I had little clue — and at this point in my life — little interest in their world.
“So, what are you up to?” he asked. “Any plans?”
I was desperate to tell him that I had plans. Huge and — for him, most likely — shocking plans. I wanted to tell him that I was on my way to the Sheremetievo airport, the airport from which you could only fly abroad. I wanted to tell him that in three hours, if all went well, I would surrender my red Soviet passport forever, collect the audiotapes filled with music we used to listen to together, step behind the glass wall, and wave goodbye to the country I would most likely never see again. In those years, Jews could only leave with no right of return, which meant that we would never be allowed reentry. I, for one, could not wait for that to happen. The past could stay there. I had no need to come back and visit it.
But I didn’t say anything to Kostya. I took my fourth glance in the mirror and remembered another of many family superstitions: Avoid telling people you are leaving. And not just because we had no immediate plans to go shopping for them or because we were worried about their safety. We didn’t tell them because we were terrified that they would jinx us, causing someone on our trip to befall the same fate as that of my great-grandmother. I wasn’t going to take any more chances today.
“Not much,” I responded. “Just hanging out.”
“You want to get together?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said. “Give me a call in the middle of next week, and we can organize something.”
“Great,” he said.
We hung up. I looked in the mirror for the fifth and the last time, grabbed my scarf, and walked out the door. After we left, my uncle stayed in our apartment for a month to dispose of our belongings. I never asked him if Kostya called and, if he did, what his reaction was upon hearing the news. Kostya was now a part of the past.
Later at the airport, I cursed myself for going back to get the scarf and for picking up that phone. The customs officials must have had a bad bribing day and were now trying to make up for lost income. In addition to the limit on suitcases, we had a limit of two items per person on gold and silver jewelry. As my turn approached, I watched the pile of confiscated earrings, bracelets, and necklaces grow bigger and bigger — and the smile on the faces of customs officers grow wider and wider.
I knew I was in trouble. I’d concealed an extra silver bracelet under the sleeve of my coat. It was a gift from my now deceased grandmother and the only thing I could fit into my luggage that would remind me of her. With zero flying experience, I thought that hiding jewelry from plain view was enough. I didn’t know that Soviet customs agents had evolved from manually searching people’s pockets and body cavities to using handheld metal detectors. I concentrated on controlling the tears that were getting ready to appear and prepared for the inevitable.
My turn came. The customs officer told me to stand next to a table and began passing the detector along my arms. I tried to use telepathy to convince the machine not to ring, but needless to say that didn’t work. The detector went off right next to my wrist like a screaming traitor. I stopped breathing and lost all feeling in my extremities. Surely, the customs officer would now ask me to remove my coat and discover the contraband. He would then proceed to confiscate my grandmother’s gift, I would cry and make a complete fool of myself, and my mother would sigh looking at my scarf, making her famous I-told-you-so expression.
But none of this happened. As I stood near the table, my wrist hung close to a pile of Soviet coins left behind by departing émigrés. The customs officer was in a good mood already, having accumulated his hefty mountain of loot. When the detector went off, he glanced at my wrist, then at the coins, and then at me. I tried to look as neutral as possible even though every organ inside my body appeared to be shutting down one after another. After studying my face for what seemed like a few light years, he turned away from me, waved me through, and yelled Next!
My knees shook all the way to the next window, where we surrendered our bright red Soviet passports. We watched the passport officer stamp each, one-by-one with a bold stamp: “Cancelled.” When he nodded his head to let us through, we walked past his booth and stepped into a waiting area. Surrounded by a hundred other émigrés anticipating the same flight out, I looked back through the glass wall. Yes, I left the past behind. But the superstitions that got me there would be coming with me.
MARGARITA GOKUN SILVER (@StoriesColors) is a writer and an artist living in Madrid, Spain. Margarita’s work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Jewish Daily Forward, Vela Magazine, McShoutys, and Mash Stories, among others. She holds a completely-unrelated-to-writing master’s degree from Yale University. Margarita continues to look in the mirror when returning for forgotten items and has passed on the habit to her American-born husband and daughter. She still has that scarf even though she no longer wears it.