There was a young American man and a young American woman, and they were in love. That was the easy part. What brought them together was a common longing. Both the man and the woman wanted to be a certain kind of American, and that was the hard part.
The man and the woman each had an ideal of what kind of American he or she wanted to be. But neither the man nor the woman could explain his or her ideal, not to each other, not to anyone else. They were sure that they shared the same ideal, but so far, the ideal had eluded words.
The best they could do was to express the ideal as a negation. They could not quite say how to be a good American, but they did know many ways to be a bad or wrong or “weird” American.
They knew, for example, that they did not want to be the kind of American who owned a television. They did not want to be the kind of American who drove a car, or ate at chain restaurants, or was obese.
Given these conditions (and many, many others like them), the man and the woman considered moving to a large city, where they could live among other young people who shared their distastes. But this plan had its own problems. If, for example, the man and the woman were going to live among young people in the city, they would need to rent an apartment in a formerly black or Hispanic neighborhood that was now mostly inhabited by white people. But they did not want to be the kind of American who drove black or Hispanic people from their neighborhoods and then felt guilty and impotent about it.
Ultimately, moving to the city would not make the man and the woman into better Americans. The young people in the city had their own versions of television and cars and chain restaurants—smartphone applications and complicated bicycles and obscure, locally produced vegetables. The man and the woman did not want to be the kind of American whose entire inner life could be deduced from his or her choices of entertainment, food, or consumer goods. But every person, it seemed, that they knew or met was this kind of easily deducible American.
Except, of course, for themselves, the man and the woman. They were sure that they had complex inner lives—or, at least, the possibility of complex inner lives, if they could become the right kind of American.
They were stuck. They did not want to be the kind of American who ate at chain restaurants, but they also did not want to be the kind of American who purposely did not eat at chain restaurants. They did not want to be the kind of American who lived in a city, but they also did not want to be the kind of American who did not live in a city.
There was talk of living in the woods. There was talk of building a cabin. Neither of them had ever built anything larger than a birdhouse, but a cabin, they figured, was just a larger birdhouse. They read about cabin-making on the internet, and they realized their mistake: they did not want to be the kind of American who goes into the wild.
But where else was there to go? Suburb, city, wild—they had exhausted their options. They did not, they realized, want to be the kind of American who lived in America.
They read Wikipedia articles about other countries. They typed the phrase “good jobs abroad” into Google. They learned that the people of nearly every country on earth wanted Americans to come and teach them English. The man and the woman could admit this much: they definitely were the kind of American who spoke English.
But where would they go? They did not want to be the kind of American who moves to Paris or Spain or Italy or Prague, who gets very drunk and tells other Americans that he or she is going to write a novel. That was the most obvious kind of bad Americanness. But there were other, more subtle kinds. The man and the woman did not want to be the kind of American who goes abroad to acquire “experience” or “reality.” They did not want to be the kind of American who becomes profound and brokenhearted in Ghana or Guatemala. They did not want to be the kind of American who learns a big lesson in a little village.
They looked on the internet for the least inspiring country they could find. They decided to move to Russia.
They could not imagine what kind of American went to Russia. Old-school Communists? Spies? Men who bought wives? The man and the woman were not in danger of becoming any of those kinds of American.
So they moved to Moscow, and they lived in a long concrete tower.
They had not learned any Russian before arriving—they were, after all, Americans—so their first Moscow friends were other Americans, other teachers of English. But even here, in the cold heart of a foreign empire, there were bad or wrong or “weird” Americans.
There was the kind of American who complained about the minor differences between American and Russian consumer products—the slightly less sweet taste of Coca Cola Light, the difficulty of finding avocados and certain cuts of lunchmeat. There was the kind of American who called Russians “comrade” and laughed, who spoke their ten words of Russian in obvious accents and without embarrassment. There was the kind of American who made loud and conspicuous complaints about the Russian government, who relished every picture of the police hitting gays or immigrants, who treasured the sense of authenticity and credibility and seriousness that came with living under a repressive foreign government. There was the kind of American who used the phrase “back home.”
All of this was obviously unacceptable, and so the man and the woman started to spend their time with Russians instead.
They went to bars and restaurants with their adult Russian students, and everyone benefited: the Russians could practice their English, and the man and the woman could hide from the badness and wrongness and “weirdness” of other Americans and cultivate their own, more pristine kind of Americanness.
But of course they were not away from other Americans, not really. No one ever is.
The man and the woman would be in a bar with Russians, and they would be proud and confident that they were the only Americans in the room, and then they would hear, in a corner, a little burble of American English. These other Americans were also with Russians; they also thought they were the only Americans in the room. They spoke English quietly, and wore clothes that were both too odd and too cool—too European, in short—to be American.
The man and the woman did not want to meet these other disguised Americans, but sometimes groups were thrown together, and they were introduced. The man and the woman learned that there was the kind of American who bragged about how long since he or she had been back to the United States or paid American income tax, who vowed not to have American friends, who married Russian men or women and offered deflated defenses of the Russian government. They were, in short, the kind of American who pretended that he or she was not American.
The man and the woman had almost become this kind of American. This terrified them, of course.
They had been in Moscow for months now, and the snow was falling. Crews of Kyrgyz immigrants shoveled the snow as it fell. The crews pushed the snow to the edge of the sidewalk, and soon the piles of snow were head-high and tunnel-like. The snow kept falling, and the man and the woman wondered where it would go. Would the walls of the tunnel would just get higher and higher, or would it collapse?
Their search seemed frozen. They were tempted to give in to the obvious wisdom.
They had always been aware of a big bland truth, the sort of thing that all great literature is supposed to teach: deep down, everyone else is just as complex as you are. No one is a type, a “kind.” The kind of American who ate at chain restaurants had an inner life too—real loves and hopes and fears, a mental existence beyond Applebee’s. The man and the woman were tempted to acknowledge that they, like all Americans, were the kind of American who thought the he or she was completely unlike any other American.
They did not give in to this temptation. They were unable. The bland truth may have been true, but it was also bland. The man and the woman could recognize that it was true, but they could never believe something so unsatisfying.
Sometimes they regretted coming to Russia. Sometimes they regretted doing anything at all. By trying out a different kind of Americanness—by leaving America—they had already become a certain kind of American: the kind who left America.
Perhaps, they thought, they should not have tried. Perhaps they should have lived in a small, spare apartment, disconnected from all forms of media and inessential social interaction. Perhaps this simpler life would have allowed them to detach, to simply, to cool, until they reached the absolute zero of Americanness.
But this idea, besides being “weird,” was also unsatisfying. It was as banal as the banal literary truth.
The only thing left was to keep trying. They did not want to be the kind of American who gave up. They would continue to work by process of elimination: they would cross out all the bad or wrong or “weird” kinds of Americanness until only the small incoherent thing inside them was left.
They would paint themselves into a corner, and the little unpainted space around their feet would be theirs.
They did not use the word “hope,” because they did not want to be the kind of American who held on to a ridiculous hope.
Ryan Napier was born in Plant City, Florida. He has degrees from Stetson University and Yale Divinity School. His work has appeared most recently in Queen Mob’s Tea House and the Carbon Culture Review. He lives in Massachusetts.