Wait.
What?

I am skimming down the crumbling stairs, focusing on not tripping. It occurred to me early on that I don’t want to get hurt while in Belarus — not that I ever want to get hurt anywhere, but I hope to be particularly careful during my time here because I don’t know how to ask for help or call emergency services. So the plan is simple: be careful.

My neck has been bent as I watch my feet move — where is that stair with the huge chip broken out of it? — and it’s only through a random fluke that my eyes rise as I reach the landing where the post boxes hang on the wall.

Initially, my assumption had been that these mail boxes had fallen into disuse; sure, they are painted a lovely blue, but at the same time, they’re ramshackle, not labeled, and some hang open while others appear jammed shut. I’ve visited places where mail delivery isn’t a regular or expected thing, so I had figured that it was the same in Belarus and that those expecting mail picked it up at the post office. However, when I asked my friend Iryna about the mailboxes in my apartment building, she corrected me: they are working boxes, maybe not used much, but occasionally flyers and coupons might be stuck into them. For the most part, though, she explained, such boxes are not used, especially because younger people pay their bills online; in general, the mailbox is becoming passe.

That’s why I’m so surprised when I raise my head and look at the mailboxes. As usual, there is nothing much going on with them, except wait. What?

Inside the third square from the left on the bottom row, something catches my attention. What the heck?

For the past month, I’ve been swiveling my head back and forth constantly; sometimes, by the end of the day, I need to tip it backwards with my eyes closed for a couple minutes before I can find the energy to make dinner. I don’t want to miss anything in this new place, so I’m always looking, looking, looking. There are those charming wooden houses; there are the grannies with their scarved heads; there are the fashionable young women in satisfyingly clompy boots; there’s the dirt path by the river, the dizzying array of spices in the grocery store, the kids playing in the fountain in the town square, the three dogs who oversee the block where my favorite cemetery is. Because I can’t believe I get to be here, I don’t want to miss anything. Because I only have a few months here, I want to absorb as much as I possibly can. Because I find great joy in the small details that tell a bigger story, I am always wondering if an untied shoe signals arthritis. 

That’s why my careful descent halts on the landing where the mailboxes hang. What even is inside that box where the door always hangs half open?

It’s a piece of paper — a card? I might not have noticed it, were the letters Cyrillic. But whoa. The words on this card are in English. And somehow, that feels like a secretive whimsy. Who had a card with English words on it and then decided to dump it inside one of these mostly unused boxes? In recent weeks, I’ve taken to cataloging the items that appear and disappear in the stairwell: there’s the pile of dirt on Floor Three that someone swept into a mountain but then never disposed of; there’s the candy wrapper on the stair about halfway up my climb; there’s the empty vodka bottle behind a radiator; there’s the half-eaten apple on a windowsill; there’s the rusty tin can with a receipt in it.

Daily, as I come and go, I remark the life of the stairwell and try to figure out what it might be telling me about the people who live in the building. Is there a granny who started cleaning the landing by her apartment but, after sweeping up a pile of dirt, realized she was out of steam and needed to go watch her stories rather than finish the task? Is there an adolescent who was eating a piece of candy while helping his mom carry the stroller for the baby, and he couldn’t be bothered to pocket the wrapper? Is there a woozy man who finished his drinking binge but hoped to fool his wife about his sobriety? Is there a nine-year-old who sometimes realizes a whole apple is just too much, much less finding a trash can? Is there a suitor who was bringing flowers and realized twenty-five steps up that he didn’t also want to be clutching a receipt?

Is there someone in the building who was given a card that has a book title in English on it — maybe a teacher handed it out as a reward for a good score on an exam? But then, since the student cheated on the exam, he didn’t want to keep the token of “Excellent Work”? And so he ditched in in one of the mailboxes on his way upstairs?

Made happy by the surprise of the peeping postcard, I grin and continue down the staircase. Huh. Life’s little surprises bring the best kind of joy. Note to self: go back during the daylight and snap a photo of that secret card in its hiding spot. 

***

Two weeks pass, during which I mostly forget about the card — forget to peer inside the mailbox except once or twice. One day I remember because I’ve come home, and there are grocery store flyers hanging from the top cracks of a few of the boxes. Another time, I remember because my bag brushes against the slightly open door of that third-from-the-left bottom-row square. But mostly, my brain is focused on other things: 

What activity will I do with pre-intermediate language learners in the neighboring city when I work with groups taking classes through the language center? What activity will I do with more advanced learners when I am in the room with them? How about beginners? What will I do every week with the 50+ groups of learners enrolled through the center?

How exactly should I be grading the students in my classes at the university so as to align with what the rest of the department does? 

What should I say to the young students at the gymnasium when I go to their auditorium to talk about “American Houses”?

Were the students at the university actually that interested in the Native-American powwow and drum circle I showed them, or did they just give good face?

Which of the four students named Lena is the one who messaged me?

Why do some cultures include etched photos on tombstones and others not?

Why does my microwave die if I use it for more than four minutes?

How did that 65-year-old woman in yoga class do Chinese splits like that? And how come, in any fitness class, when we do something that requires flexibility and balance, not a single person struggles?

Are there miserable unseen lives for those with disabilities here? 

Does everyone genuinely not want to talk politics? 

Why can’t the U.S. crack the sour cream code of Belarus and make a delicious, creamy, slightly sweet product that is then worked into 80% of meals?

Will the natives ever believe I’m a grown woman who can dress herself and, therefore, no, I’m not cold, and no, I don’t need a warmer jacket? 

Why is the Sad Angel on the ceiling of my apartment so inconsolable?

Does the mail carrier have a key for the entrance to every building on his/her route?

Why did it never occur to me before that almost everyone in Belarus who takes vacations has been to Turkey because it’s cheap, and there’s no visa required? Why did it never occur to me that problems between Russia and Ukraine with regards to Crimea mean Belarusians lost their #1 vacation spot?

How come the roads and sidewalks have been built with zero interest in drainage?

How many more days will pass before I drink a hoppy beer?

How do these women who work long, full days and have children with after-school activities mange to find the energy for evening fitness classes?

What is the word for “understanding someone’s heart without sharing a common language”?

***

One day, as I’m heading downstairs, trying to get my head around the idea of “speaking Belarusian instead of Russian” as a statement of opposition, I see something hanging from all the mailboxes. 

There is a half-folded slip of paper carefully tucked into the top crack of each box. Slowing my roll, I assess the papers. The content looks official — except, of course, as is the way here, it’s printed on the back of already used paper. But there is a short paragraph in Russian on each slip, and within the paragraph is a fill-in-the-blank spot that has a number hand-written into it. So. This is maybe, like, a bill? If it is, how do I know which one to take? There are no names or apartment numbers on any of them.

Always afraid of a firm talking to, especially from a stranger, I continue down the staircase.

***

Hours later, when I return home, it’s dark outside. It’s dark inside. There are motion-detector lights for each landing in the building, but it’s pitch black for the first set of stairs, and frequently my motion isn’t detected until I’m well past a landing. 

Ugh. Even though I am moving and climbing, I can’t see anything. Shifting bags to one hand, I grab my phone from my pocket and give it a quick shake; a flashlight beam hits the mailboxes. Well now. It appears all my neighbors have already returned home for the evening. Only one piece of paper still hangs from the mailboxes.

I know of one person in the building who hasn’t taken hers yet. 

This is my kind of math.

Tentatively, I reach for the bill just as the motion-detecting light flicks on. Quickly, guiltily, I withdraw my hand. Did I just get busted? No, no, no. It’s just light, not an accusation.

As I reach again for the slip of paper, I remember to take stock of which box is apparently “mine.” The only numbers I’ve ever seen are a 10 and an 8 at the top of the mailboxes, with the 10 on the left and the 8 on the right. My apartment is 15. Slowly, I start counting boxes from the top row, left to right. Yup. When I get to the box where the lone slip of paper remains, I am at 15. And now that I’ve done the easy, logical counting that has eluded my brain these past weeks, I realize something: there are faint numbers above each box.

Hey. I have a mailbox! And it’s the 15th one! And it’s the one with the number 15 above it!

You all remember I was in my mid-thirties when I figured out that sunflower seeds come from sunflowers, right?

***

So I have a mailbox, and it’s the 15th one, which means third from the left on the bottom row, the one that has no latch and hangs half open, 

the one hiding the surprising, whimsical card with English words on it — the card tucked in there by the kid who cheated on his exam.

Wait.

Which of the four students named Lena is the one who messaged me?

A.

Why do some cultures include etched photos on tombstones and others not?

Minute.

Why does my microwave die if I use it for more than four minutes?

Inhaling to a count of three, I calm the questions and thoughts and observations that keep me from seeing what’s in front of my face. 

The American visitor who has spent the last few weeks twirling dizzily around the margins has a mailbox, and in it is a postcard…sent from someone who speaks English, who knows how lovely it is to receive mail, who realizes a quickly jotted note can feel like a reassuring hug.

Bags hanging from one hand, my phone and a slip of paper in the other, I am both clumsy and delighted as I reach into my mailbox to extract the long-neglected postcard. 

Alone in a dark stairwell in a new country, moisture dripping off my raincoat, tote bags cutting into my wrist, I lean my head against the cool metal of the mailboxes and aim the flashlight at the back of the card.

There they are: my name, my address, my location on the earth, all scratched in the familiar hand of my friend Maggie, she who excels at postal thoughtfulness. 

I am official.

I am here.

I’ve got mail, and I have a bill.

This is really happening.

***

Stuffing the card between my front teeth, I bite into the ink as I fumble for my keys and try not to trip.

The taste of home seeping into my mouth, I wonder,

Do those guys fishing in the river need licenses?

———————————-

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Published by Jocelyn

There's this game put out by the American Girl company called "300 Wishes"--I really like playing it because then I get to marvel, "Wow, it's like I'm a real live American girl who has 300 wishes, and that doesn't suck, especially compared to being a dead one with none."

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