Moscow, an uneasy city.

Notes from different corners of the world.
Sept. 1 2004 6:42 PM

Dispatch From Moscow

In my Russia, the terrorists are winning.

When my best friend's wife called me in the middle of the day yesterday, my heart sank. I was staying home to work on a story, and I wasn't expecting any calls. Besides, my friend was supposed to be in the air, having taken off that morning from the Domodedovo airport of terrorist fame, on the Tu-154 plane of terrorist fame, on the Sibir airline of terrorist fame. One of this company's other Tu-154s had blown up in the air a few days earlier, less than an hour out of Domodedovo. My friend and I had been exchanging morbid jokes about this for a couple of days. We'd each pointed out that the old Russian adage about a bomb never hitting the same spot twice had been debunked (there had been two planes). "At least," I'd said, "no one's ever been blown to pieces on the return flight."

As it turned out, my friend was fine, more or less—he'd been sitting in a plane on the runway for hours, apparently because of some new threat or rumor or fear. His wife just happened to call with a professional question.

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I went back to work for a few hours—I was writing the cover story for the weekly magazine where I work. I was interviewing someone by instant messenger when my interlocutor suddenly disappeared from the screen. She came back about 30 minutes later, apologizing; she had been on the phone trying to reach her parents in Beer-Sheva, Israel, where a bomb had just gone off. They were fine, she said, adding that she would now appreciate the distraction of continuing the interview.

Working at home proved difficult. The kids were especially loud because their grandmother was in town. My mother-in-law had come from St. Petersburg especially to see 7-year-old Vova off to school. Sept. 1, known in Russia as the Day of Knowledge, is the first day of school across the country, and a first-grader's first day is usually celebrated with some fanfare. My daughter Yael, who is almost 3, was trying to compete for her grandmother's attention, showing her a photo album she has recently uncovered. It contains her birth and baby pictures, and it starts with a classic photo of the mother ridiculously pregnant, about to burst. I am naked in the picture, standing in a New York hotel room. The date in the lower-right-hand corner is 09-11-01, and lately the fact that it's the first picture in my daughter's album has been giving me the creeps. The photo was taken minutes before I found out that a plane had crashed into one of the Twin Towers, a few blocks away.

I wedged my last batch of phone calls in that short bath-and-tooth-brushing interval after supper and before bedtime reading. This was when someone  told me about the explosion in Moscow. Eight dead (now the body count is up to 10), 40 wounded. What knocked the wind out of me was the location: If I hadn't stayed home from work, I would have been driving past that very spot a few minutes earlier, or a few minutes later, or right when the bomb went off. I made one more quick call to assign a reporter.

Vova was asleep on the top bunk and Yael was still trying to get comfortable on the bottom one, where I'd agreed to keep her company for a bit. She extracted a fuzzy ball from under the blanket.

"Where does this go?" she asked.

"I'll set it on the floor right here, by the bed," I said.

"But what if a strange man comes and takes it?"

"This is our house," I said. "There are no strangers here." I felt like I was lying. Not that I think strangers will be breaking into our house to steal Yael's fuzzy ball, but I was trying to impart to her a sense of safety that I didn't have. Safety just then would have felt like the usual nighttime low buzz of things left over from the day, already fading into irrelevance. Instead, in my mind I was composing a chart.

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