In September 1994, in a University of Long Island (ULI) building hallway, we meet Lena:
Running the gauntlet of students clogging the corridor, new MBA student Lena harrumphed as she strode by. “Bonjour! Isabelle, who numbered these rooms? They make no sense!”
Still overcoming their own Cold War mistrust, Americans are not quite sure yet what to make of these Russian students. Blonde, statuesque, brimming with enthusiasm, and certainly not bashful, Lena dominates every gathering. Both being new international students, she and Isabelle gravitate to each other, becoming unlikely chums.
In far off Moscow, Lena’s father is in some sort of a business partnership with Lena’s newly Brooklyn-resident uncle. With Lena a graduate student at this expensive American school, obviously her father is doing well financially. Yet Lena is maddeningly vague on details, so Isabelle and Lena’s other non-Russian friends have little real idea how her family has so much money.
And having money clearly suits Lena very well:
“You know,” Lena teased, “I think we should all fly to Paris for New Year’s Eve. We will stay with Isabelle in her huge house on the Champs-Elysées! Ooh, la, la!”
“Champs-Elysées?” Isabelle laughed. “Because you own Moscow, don’t think all of us have your millions. In my place, you get to sleep in the stairs out the door. The neighbors will step over you as they go into their places!”
Lena smiled at Isabelle.
“I know,” Isabelle continued, grinning, speaking directly to Lena, “maybe we will all go to Russia to your dacha!”
On a shopping day out with Isabelle, unexpectedly Lena turns serious when chitchat between them touches on life under the communists in the former USSR. Suddenly the usually friendly and extroverted Russian turns icy cool and makes her worldview abundantly plain to her French friend: governments and ideologies are frauds and rubbish. All of them.
“Every year the holiday was the Black Sea. I would kill myself. I will not live behind a communist wall. They can take their Marx and F-off.”
In the end, all that matters is what’s in your bank account.
Yet, based on all else that she sees of Lena, Isabelle is skeptical Lena really believes that….