The train was bulleting forward, through the darkness and the vast snows, away from smoking ruins, midnight sirens and the smell of charred human flesh. The shoebox compartment I shared with my colicky baby and two strangers rattled and shook. Lola screamed. Ivan and Victor—Chechen war veterans—drank vodka. I hadn’t slept for five months.
“You need sleep,” said Ivan one night, pouring me a full glass of vodka. He covered it with a thick slice of stale black bread, and balanced a sliver of murky-green pickle on top—it trembled as the train flew forward.
“Drink it, woman,” said Ivan. “You’ll sleep and you’ll feel better.”
The vodka burned my throat. Victor snored. Lola kept screaming.
“I can’t live like this,” I cried. “Where are we going? Ivan, Ivan, what is the purpose?”
Ivan stood up. Crumbs in his grey beard, sparks in his radiant blue eyes, he looked like a saint from a Russian Orthodox icon. The train flew, the floor shook. Ivan gripped the bunk-bed with his left hand. He lost his right hand when a Chechen home-made bomb exploded under his feet. His empty sleeve—tucked under his belt neatly—scared me.
“This is the purpose of life, woman.”
Ivan turned into one long pointing hand, his yellow bumpy finger suddenly steady. His thick flat fingernail almost touched Lola’s crunched-up face.
I held Lola to my chest. She smelled of tobacco and sour milk. Suddenly she smiled at me—toothless jaws shiny pink—and grabbed my thumb. I kissed a dimple on her right cheek. Ivan snored next to Victor.
“We’ll have a good life, Lolly,” I whispered. “Far, far away there’s a magic country with big, big buildings and fast red cars. You’ll have Barbies, jeans and bubblegum. You’ll have a good life. We’ll fly there, you and me. Don’t cry.”
Life flew like a Trans-Siberian Express. It rattled and shook, full of drunks, empty sleeves, and smelly pickles, and I always felt like a transit passenger, a crinkled ticket in my hand, a pulsing question in my head.
I asked it everywhere.
At a dance club, on Saturday nights. I’d lean against a cold wall, the grainy stone printing into my naked back. I’d look at the long line of yellow taxis, green lights blinking, girls hopping in and out in bright silk dresses like exotic butterflies in jungles. I didn’t need a drink. I was intoxicated by the mingling scents of cigarettes, exhaust fumes and perfume—the dizzying tang of the San Francisco night.
Inside disco lights pulsed, snatching a shaved head here, a swinging arm there, a silver bracelet, a hoop-earring, a sweat bead above a curved lip. Men—potential husbands—with goatees and musky cologne twirled me around.
“What is the purpose of life?” I asked them.
I asked about fifty or a hundred men. They all said the same thing. A stare. A big smile. Tobacco and coffee stained teeth, a wink, “The purpose of life is to have fun, baby. Wanna go to my place?”
“Fun?” said my best friend Masha. “They want to have fun. Disgusting. Shallow. Low. Aren’t they ashamed to even admit it?”
I looked at the dark circles under her eyes.
“Men are pigs. That’s all they want to do, fun!”
Masha’s first husband was a cocaine-addict, and her second husband was an alcoholic.
“Try driving kids to school,” she said, her Russian accent getting thicker and thicker, “work all day like a dog, drive kids back from school, feed them, bathe them, change them—”
“What do you think is the purpose of life?” I asked her.
“It is obviously to suffer.”
One Tuesday morning, at the weekly marketing meeting, the conference room felt like a commercial freezer. I color-coordinated folders on the desk. Zelda Slemish, a Product Manager, sipped her Starbucks latte.
“Zelda,” I asked, “before we get started. What’s the purpose of life?”
Zelda frowned—she had a Socrates forehead—shrugged, and gave me a long stare. I could imagine her dialing HR after the meeting.
“Work,” she said, patting her mermaid hair. “I believe in what I do.”
Zelda then opened her orange binder, latte foam trembling on her upper lip.
“First item on agenda. Global Marketing: Tangy Teriyaki Boneless Wings.”
On the way to my cubicle, I asked Lucy, our office manager. She smiled. Her teeth always made me think I had forgotten to floss. Lucy was twenty eight, a vegan and a volunteer at the SPCA.
“Lucy, what’s the purpose of life?”
Lucy closed Twitter. She beamed at me as if she had been waiting for this question for the last twenty five years. “Isn’t it obvious? The purpose of life is to connect with other people.”
Her voice was soft, like a kindergarten teacher’s.
“Men do not think that way,” I said.
“Oh,” said Lucy. “Right! Of course! They probably think the purpose of life is to provide for their families?”
I got married about five years ago. A few months after my wedding, I asked my new husband, “Honey, what’s the purpose of life?”
“What purpose?” he said, his face behind the Economist.
“Why are we here? Where are we going? And why?”
“It’s all bullshit,” he said. “Go do the dishes.”
On Lola’s eighteenth birthday, I Skyped her.
“Happy Birthday, Lolly,” I said. “How are you?”
“Fine,” she said. “Thanks. Wait a second.”
I watched her shuffling out of bed in her plaid pajamas. She searched for her cell phone—first in her canvas bag among an open pack of cigarettes, loose dollar bills and a half-eaten candy, then in her jeans pockets.
“Did you have your breakfast?” I asked. “Did you eat oatmeal?”
She was checking her texts, the dimple on her right cheek making me feel happy and anxious at the same time.
She looked away, bit her lip. Then, she said, “Mom. What’s the purpose of life?”