These women lived in hope, they lived for the future as if they were every one of them already characters in a movie that projected well beyond one orgasm’s duration—a movie of constant orgasm being constantly filmed: a wishful collectivist biopic accumulating footage—incessantly accumulating reels and gigabytes of footage—for all that dirty work of editing into coherence and happy endings somewhere years from now and countries away.

They lived as the aspiring stars of the movies of their own lives, which themselves contained the movies of others (much as nuclear reactors contain their cores):


Like the Innocent boy from around the block movie about an Innocent boy from around the block who begins driving a better sportscar and sporting better muscles, crucified in a black leather jacket, hung with gold chains (though he sold heroin substitute, though it was said he sold women—look how motivated he is, look how rich—Innokenti, I remember when we both were just kids).


Like the movie about the defense contractor billionaire who’d financed a production of his own out in northeastern Randomstan, but without even filming it, with epic thousands of extras but no cameras or crew: it’d been a Passion play, one night only staged on the steppe, ever since being nearly hazed to death as an Air Force mechanic he’d wanted to experience that many people taking orders from him—the one about the former bricklayer turned gas refinery tycoon who, to repent for having inflicted Orthodox baptism on his ten year old stepdaughter (and to mortar his relationship with her mother, a lingerie importer), had bought the girl her own television broadcast: she’d babble to the world about her friends, boys, school, and sport for an hour each night at eleven—the port concessions magnate who’d financed a judge’s vanity recording of Liszt—the financial services mogul who’d commissioned a mural of his transgender mistress/master for a flank of his bank—the politician who’d hired a Muscovite screenwriter to ghostwrite a book exposing the corruption of his, the screenwriter’s, uncle, a Navy embezzler who’d sunk submarines: the nephew took the work, he was broke.


This was an ambitious time and the girls knew their movies—they knew those had by hearsay or passed down the bulvar as well as they knew those of their siblings and intimates—they traded their stakes and plot points and narrative arcs—they quoted from them until they couldn’t separate the quotes from their own conversation—they repeated and repeated them, you couldn’t avoid them, you can’t avoid summary—they even ambitiously invented them to reinvent themselves:


A man thrashed his wife whose head spurted oil—another billion, trillion—googillionaire. A man from the next town over, it was said, always just the next town, battered the gut of his pregnant wife and their son was born fluent in C++ and Chinese. Soon he had women at his door lining three deep, begging him to go to work on their issue. Then yet another nouveau oligarch who’d kickstarted his fortune marketing fire extinguishers throughout the Baltics or Balkans, parlaying that lode into funding lucrative ecommerce interests—it was said (apparently, it even made international headlines), he intended to launch a blue whale into space and was designing a shuttle whose fuselage would be equipped with a seawater tank. Once safely in orbit, the tank’s hatch would open, releasing the water and whale to float dead forever in blackness—our earth a bruise the size of its eye. . . .


But the most successful of these movies, the widest cited, it seemed—whenever a teacher assigned the composition theme of Hope, whenever any of the girls skipped their composition tutorials to hitchhike to the gorge for a swim only because they were young with plombir skin and fit and ruthless and happened to spot speeding from the opposite cardinality a vehicle as red as (some of these epithets were used, others are fictitious) ‘the Soviet flag,’ ‘a fire siren,’ ‘the covers of the Russian passport,’ ‘menarche’—was this, was the story of ‘Mary Mor.’


Which is also the story of the unpopular Hollywood film Sleepwaker V, dir. Edison Lips, 1998.


Sleepwaker V is the most famous but also only film of this ‘Mary Mor,’ who does not star in it with her name shining pointedly above the title, but plays Hotty #3, whose total screentime is ≤ forty-five seconds.


‘Hotty Mor’ as she was called—with the accents of these tellings a binomial classification perhaps best transliterated as Chotty Mor or Khoti Mor—was a success story to trump all success stories, her movie widely heard of but seldom seen—it became more potent the longer it went unviewed, as if an ineffable dictator.


She was a model of what every girl wanted—not just an actress, was she a model too?


Her recent naturalisation by the United States government revealed her to be Toyta Dzhakhmadkalova—and this attempted journalism, this inept investigative reporting, is dedicated to her.


She was born atop a tiny speck of static blown just outside Vedeno, Vedensky District, Chechnya, a mudspot like a mortifying stain on the dress of the land. Must be laundered, must be treadwashed by tanks. Russian was not her native language, she had no dialogue, she was frequently silent. Her home, an apartment complex hastily built to gird Vedeno’s outskirts, has been almost totally destroyed. It was, by the time of her leaving, that proverbial heap of concrete surrounded by field the colour of a suicidebombed circus and the miry consistency of mad tigress dung. The following things, things being weaknesses, made her cry: faded wallpaper in a scythe pattern similar to what they had in the kitchen of her family’s apartment (but every family had similar wallpaper), last cigarettes not shared, dying ficus placed by unsunned windows (in apartments where none of the windows were sunned), cold tea—and now, for the uninitiated, the briefest of history lessons: border skirmishes by separatist guerillas vs. Russians, Russian army incursions, hilariously vituperative decades of on again off again conflict you might’ve caught on television or not.


It has not been recorded—how Toyta found her way to Grozny (lit. terrible), capital of the Chechen Republic, following the First Chechen War. Perhaps she was there visiting a relative close or distant, the aunt of her aunt she called aunt too, the wife of a father’s friend from hydroelectric engineering school she called Peacock—because of the woman’s plumage, the feather she tied to her braid—but privately. Supposed to meet her at the bus terminal. Never knew which three o’clock train. Nor is it known how Toyta was supposed to have supported herself. Whether she cooked for monks or did laundry for a nearby madrassa, whether she cleaned floors for whatever government offices were left or washed windows in what official residences in the diplomatic quarter hadn’t been razed. What retails as fact is that one night in an impromptu Grozny discotheque (formerly a dairy) she met a Russian soldier—cleancut, tightbodied, tightclothed in uniform plus mufti sneakers—who managed through bribing a general it must have been to bring her back to the site of his patriarchate: 180 kilometres outside Moscow and then, for a weekend, to Moscow Herself, neighbourhood Ostankino, where a comrade soldier also discharged had an uncle who commanded a balcony over Zvyozdny (but the uncle spent whole months what was characterised as consulting in Crimea).


We will pause here to allow you to recite your PIN numbers to yourself.


By Saturday Night 1996, she’d escaped a Ciscaucasian death. Toyta would become, if the girls who’d tell this story were aware of the concept, Immortal—which Slavic languages too tend to render in the negative, as if it were regrettable: ‘never-dying,’ ‘never-ending.’ At a bar in Moscow she left her solider for a visiting American, a roving producer of pornographic movies.


This reporter was told that though the bar’s ambiance blarneyed Irish, its name was very much of its place and time, ambitious, nearly excessively utopian: The Brothel Under the Sign of the Dice with Three Faces, Where Lesbians Drink Free on Sundays, Male Homosexuals Eat Free Every Second Monday, Where Behind One of the Toilet Tanks Is Said to be Hidden a Jew’s Treasure and the Rook’s Nest in the Garderobe Has Been Formed from the World’s Longest Lime Twig That if Ever Unravelled into Its Original Curvature Would Spell Out the Word Typewriter . . . (but I think here I might’ve been toyed with).


You ask, you might, how could an American who respects women and gives them jobs with equal wages and higher ed degrees and diligently keeps his paws off them—how could he ever expect with his solicitousness and always asking and nerves to take a woman away from a Russian soldier? from an officer—we’ve just promoted him—an officer with holstered sidearm, this major in Czarish bluegreens the colour of a Romanov’s blood? To answer that, however, you’d have to think bigger than masculinity, bigger than the sexpower of violence, of war. It should be understood that the American in the sideways porkpie hat still dangling its pricetag was no mere gap year visitor or sex tourist but an approximate Russian himself (such is the nature of the American problem: who are you? whose are you?), an émigré who’d come to the United States in 1984 or thereabouts via Israel and was here returned to Moscow—though he was born in St. Petersburg, or Leningrad, and had never been to Moscow before—recruiting talent or the eligibly cheap.


After Toyta had filmed a luxuriously uxorious—read: unremunerated—scene in his room in the starriest hotel in Moscow (don’t believe it but this is what he almost certainly had her believe: with marble baths, marble sinks, marble floors, with beds as rare and expensive as arabescato and just as uncomfortable to stay the night in), this hyphenated-American, this Russian-Israeli-Floridian—Iosif, Yossele, let’s call him Joe, regular Joe—procured for her a legitimate work visa #H1B and flew her to Los Angeles, whose airport bears the acronym LAX.


Los Angeles, despite belonging to dreams, also belongs to America. This means that Toyta’s life was set, her survival assured by Marines. Here she could become someone named Tanya and this Tanya Someone could become a success. The rest, the denouement as it’s said in film, the finale, is scarcely as important.


In LA, Toyta/Tanya became Tina Toy, then, because she was once mercilessly lashed with the word ‘tiny’ by a wheelchaired dominatrix in a Thai noodlerie’s ladies’ room, ‘your waist is soooo tiny!’—Tanya/Tina at the mirror slurping up the word in an endlessly looping waist of tiny tiny tiny—she became Tiny Toy, until a reputable casting agent she met at an audition for a low budget, character driven thriller told her she’d had her typed from name alone as black, not white and foreign—and so she became Mary Moor, who became Mary Mor (both at the suggestion of a Brit cameraman with bum knees who’d tried to date her), because in porn, which genre it seemed she’d be condemned to forever, there was already an established Mary More, another tanned to public transport upholstery texture girl with platinised tresses once notorious for the development of her kegels but now on her way out who, due to unspecified viruses—definitely herpes, allegedly hepatitides—could perform by industry decree only when protected, with the man maintaining on his erection a condom.


Toyta, for her part, was never infected with the worst of the diseases you could contract in America—doubt—she was positively immune to fear and doubt and so was incapable of being anything but fun, firm, and objectively reckless (not even that monthly test could scare her: the butch boss nurse, the kit’s prick, a fink of blood to clog the vial—while waiting, she counted, the results always arriving punctually, by thirty).



is the author of the novels Witz, A Heaven of Others, and Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto. A book of novellas, Four New Messages, was published by Graywolf Press in August 2012, and his essay Attention came out with Notting Hill Editions in 2013. Cohen is the New Books critic for Harper's Magazine. He lives in New York City.



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