Amor vincit omnia
(Co-authored with Natalia Loginova)

All is fair in love and war.
American proverb (originally from F. E. Smedley, Frank Farleigh)

V.D.: In late June 1998, I was driving back to Berkeley after a two month-long trip around the United States. I spent a night at the crest of the Sierra Nevada, sunbathed for a couple hours at an alpine meadow, and rolled down a narrow road towards the hazy valleys of California. My car had been making weird sounds for the last two thousand miles; I, too, was a bit tired of adventures. It was a nice trip: blooming deserts, caves, cypress swamps, coral reefs, barrier islands, forests and prairies of all kinds, glaciers, canyons, sagebrush basins, all of them inhabited by nice people and wonderful wildlife. Now I had to find a job and a place to live. Well, at least I could count on Alex: he'd promised to let me stay at his place for a week or two.

I was already approaching the Bay Area when I saw a small rattlesnake trying to cross the freeway. I had to put it in an empty box and take with me: it wouldn't survive if left near the freeway. I decided to release it somewhere next morning.

N.L.: In late June 1998, being totally exhausted from working at five jobs and still having to count every ruble in my home city of Ekaterinburg, Russia, I decided to accept an invitation from my old friend Alex, and to spend two months in California. My relationship with my husband was kind of strained after a year of marriage. I wasn't very optimistic about Alex either, so I took only a regular vacation and a small backpack.

V.D: Alex didn't seem very happy when he opened the door. "Where can I put this box?" I began. "There's a baby rattlesnake in it..." Suddenly, I saw a girl sitting on a couch. Our eyes met, we heard a faint crackling sound, and the air filled with ozone. "No, this isn't right," I thought, trying to look in some other direction for at least a few seconds. "She's Alex's girl, not mine..." But it was too late.

I very much believe in love at first sight. For emotional people like me, there's no other kind. If I am not in love with a girl after the first five minutes, I can later have friendship, sex, even a long and mutually pleasant relationship, but not love.

N.L.: I had never met a person before who would know so much about... well, about everything. And we were thinking in the same way: all the time he was saying exactly the things I was about to say.

V.D: I'd heard a lot about Natalia from our mutual friends with Alex. I knew that she was the love of his life, that he was getting desperate over the years. I expected to see a heartless bitch, shamelessly manipulating the poor guy. The girl was stunningly beautiful - just as they'd said - but also fresh and charming like a small mountain river, a bit shy, very well educated, and surprisingly honest. She was doing her best to let Alex know he could only expect friendship, but he failed, or refused, to notice.

N.L.: I felt totally knocked off my feet. "Why don't you sort out the problems you already have," I tried to tell myself, "instead of getting into more trouble." But it didn't work. It was as if Alex and my husband suddenly ceased to exist. Talking with Vladimir was so interesting and easy! But I did my best to keep appearances, until the next evening, in the middle of a conversation, he suddenly smiled and said:

"Why don't you just marry me and forget about them both?"

I like men of action (and what girl doesn't?), but that was a bit too much. And he wasn't kidding. I reminded him that I was already married, to which he answered:

"So what? I've also been married until a year ago, and I still love my ex-wife. It doesn't matter. It's very rare for two people to be a perfect match, and even more rare for such people to actually meet. If you get that lucky, go for it. Everything else - previous relationships, jobs, duties, visa problems - is irrelevant. It might or might not work out, but we must give it a try."

He sounded very convincing. And he meant it. I didn't give him an answer, but he probably knew it anyway.

V.D: Next day Alex went to work, and I took Natalia to San Francisco. We left the car on top of a cliff and walked down to a cave in the coastal rocks. The far end of the cave opened into the surf. It was a windy day, so the cave was filled with thunder of crushing waves, salty mist, and weird green light. We kissed there for the first time.

N.L.: Then we got back into the car and sat there, watching the gray ocean. Suddenly a big fat raccoon climbed a garbage bin in front of the car and started fishing out foot scraps, unwrapping sweets and sucking beer from bottles. We watched it, trying not to laugh. Then Vladimir said:

"Alex is a nice guy, but we kind of live on different planets."

"What planet do you live on?" I asked.

"You'll see."

V.D: I was running out of money and still had no job. After about a week, Alex began to feel something, and asked me to move out. Fortunately, on that same day I found some work. My friends Sasha and Ann introduced me to Ben, a local artist. His paintings resembled traditional Russian icons. He was also trimming trees part-time, and was looking for an assistant. He had a tiny yacht at a nearby marina, and offered me to stay there as a guard.

I'd like to have Natasha (Natasha and Natalia are the same name in Russian) move in with me, but the yacht was too small: we could barely fit in together. I was making less than two hundred dollars a week thanks to Ben's outstanding organizational skills. His three main modes of operation were depression, drinking bouts, and love disasters.

For reasons unknown, Ben was obsessed with Slavic girls. Every time we were passing a good-looking female walking down the street, he would look in the rear view mirror of the truck and say: "What a beauty! She must be Russian!" even if she was black or Chinese. He had hundreds of mail-order catalogs with Russian and Ukrainian "brides", and kept bringing the "girls" over to the States. Every time the girl would run away within 24 hours of arrival - I don't think he'd ever had enough time to touch them. Later Ben got involved into some kind of a dispute with Ukrainian mafia over a girl he paid for but didn't get, went to Kiev to claim his money, and disappeared. I fell sorry for him - he wasn't a bad person, just a bit crazy.

We spent days walking around residential areas, looking for trees that (in Ben's opinion) needed trimming, and offering our services to their owners. Ben was always carrying a baby Chihuahua dog, which helped our business a lot by attracting people and making us look less dangerous.

N.L.: Vladimir worked early hours, while Alex, as most software engineers, didn't go to work until noon. As soon as he'd leave, I would open a window, letting Vladimir (who was waiting outside) know that he could come in. He was always unimaginably dirty, all covered with sawdust, resin, and clay, but five minutes later he'd come out of the shower immaculately clean, clear-shaved, in white pants and shirt. The only other time I've ever seen him so well-dressed was on our wedding day. We would go to the coast or explore surrounding hills, then he'd drive me home in time for Alex's return.

V.D: I wasn't very happy about this time sharing arrangement, but I had no choice. Two main dorms at the University were closed for renovation, so finding an apartment in the area was virtually impossible. Finally I found a place in the foothills, a tiny room in a two-bedroom apartment. The house was sitting directly on top of a major fault, but I jumped at the opportunity anyway. When I came to have a look at it, 17 students were already there. Within five minutes, a fistfight began. A neighbor across the street called the police. While the cops were packing the students into cars, I managed to write a check and give it to the frightened guy who was representing the owners. Our romantic dates at the yacht were over.

N.L.: I couldn't wait to move in with Vladimir, but I felt really sorry for Alex. After all, it was him who invited me to the States, and even recommended me to his boss. I couldn't be paid because I had no work permit, but at least I could work as a volunteer while the company was trying to get me a working visa. Anyway, I decided to wait for a few more days, just to let our relationship with Alex fall apart naturally.

V.D: Ben started drinking again, but I found another job: pizza delivery. I knew Natasha was going to move to my place within a week or two, but waiting wasn't easy. I spent my shifts driving around with a pile of hot pizzas, eating the best stuff (pineapple, ham, sausage, and artichoke slices) from each, listening to an old Russian rock classic:

I was crushing glass, like chocolate, in my hands,
I was cutting my fingers for not being able to touch you.
A drunken doctor told me that you'd passed away,
A firefighter issued me a notice: your house had burned.
But I want to be with you, no matter what,
And I will be with you...

I was particularly upset because I couldn't go anywhere with her for more than a few hours. I was dying to show Natalia what a wonderful place we were living in. Besides, I thought that being really good at organizing travel was my most valuable skill.

N.L.: One Friday Alex and I got into a really big fight, and I moved to Vladimir's microscopic room in a quiet street near the campus. Next day Vladimir took me south along Highway 1, down to Monterey and then along the coast.

V.D: It is one of the world's most beautiful roads, but driving there on summer weekends isn't much fun: it gets totally clogged by slow-moving tourists from relatively flat states east from the Rockies. Most of them are paralyzed by fear as they navigate scary-looking turns thousand feet above the surf.

After a few hours, we stopped at a particularly scenic pullout. The sun was already low above the ocean. In narrow canyons across the road, tall redwoods were sticking out of sunlit fog.

N.L.: We just stayed there, waiting for the sun to set. Far below, seagulls and vultures were soaring over black reefs.

"This is my planet," said Vladimir.

V.D: Of course, Natalia couldn't ride to work with Alex anymore, so we had to borrow money from all our friends to get her a car. Fortunately I had more friends by that time. An old buddy of mine moved from Moscow to Sonoma. Another guy from Moscow was working with me at the pizzeria. It took Natasha only a couple weeks to learn to drive well, because she was getting a lot of practice. Her office was fifty miles away, and traffic was really bad. Late at night she would come to the pizzeria, help me deliver the last orders, then we'd eat another pizza and crawl home.

N.L.: We shared our apartment with Spike, a guy from Florida. He also worked as a tree trimmer. He was very funny, always smoking pot and making jokes. Soon he was joined by his new Brazilian girlfriend, Renata. Officially, Vladimir and Spike were not allowed to bring more people in the apartment, so we were all very nervous during police searches. Such searches happened almost weekly, because Spike's nephew Witt was a wholesale marijuana dealer, and used our closet as a warehouse. Every time the cops would arrest Witt, but next day he'd be back, laughing and offering joints to everybody. Well, if the police in Berkeley started putting people in jail for smoking pot, the city would soon turn into a ghost town. Renata had visa problems at that time, so the searches scared her a lot. The poor girl didn't speak much English yet (she had to bring a dictionary to her first dates with Spike).

V.D: Our house belonged to a Jesuit academy (which fact didn't prevent us from getting a phone number starting with 666). Their representative would come once a month with an inspection. Natalia and Renata had to wait it out in a car. The inspector would smoke a joint and leave. We had much more trouble with our neighbor from a house across the street. He invariably called the police every time Spike was listening to loud music or forgot to put out a garbage bin. Despite his activities as an informant, the Jesuits never found out about the illegal girls. And about the illegal cat.

N.L.: Yes, we decided to take a cat from a shelter, and picked Goldie. She was already an adult, so her chances of being adopted were close to zero. She probably felt it, and was sitting in the far end of her cage with a sad look. We changed her name to Abrikos (Russian for "apricot") because she liked it better. At first she was very shy - apparently, her previous owners were not particularly nice people. But in a few months she decided that we could be trusted, and turned into a very friendly and beautiful cat, bright-orange with lynx-style ear tufts.

V.D: Being a pizza driver was a good way to get better knowledge of the town. Our customers included a lot of interesting characters: Armenian millionaire who'd turned the inside of his huge house into a medieval castle; rock climbers who would lower a bag for me to put pizza in; lamas in a Tibetan monastery at the ridgecrest. The best orders were the ones from numerous secret bordellos: the girls were in such a hurry to get back to their clients that they'd give me a twenty and shut the door, never asking for change. At first I liked the job, especially the difficult trips into the hills, where the narrow streets were always hidden in dense fog at night. Then driving along the same routes got a bit boring. As soon as Natasha got her work permit and started getting paid, I quit the pizzeria. A week later, I was working in a dotcom startup. Vadim, my friend from the pizzeria, also got a new job as a software engineer. He didn't know anything about computers, but we helped him make up a resume with a long list of software jobs back in Russia. Good luck comes to those who deserve it: he spent two happy years testing code for another startup, and even got promoted a few times.

N.L.: Now we could afford an apartment. We left our room to Vadim's friend, a professional interpreter. He had licenses and diplomas from all existing societies and academies of translators, but we had to explain to him that English raccoon and Russian yenot were the same thing. He still lives there, frequently getting into fights with Spike over dishwashing and cleaning duties.

V.D: Before moving, we gave Spike a chance to make some money. It was December of 1999, so Spike, proud owner of an ancient 386 PC (used only for playing Tetris), was panicking about the millennium bug. We showed him how to change the date on the computer clock to 1990. He did the same thing for all his friends, charging them $100 each.

N.L.: Our new place had a great view of San Francisco and the Bay. Four wild deer lived in our garden, and raccoons visited us every night.

V.D: By that time we'd been in Canada twice, trying to stamp a US visa in Natalia's passport. But because of various bureaucratic paradoxes, we couldn't get it. She could live and work in the States, but traveling anywhere else, except Canada, was impossible - there was always a chance she wouldn't be able to get back in. So we were limited to places like Puerto Rico, Hawaii and Alaska. For three years, I couldn't take her anywhere else. It doesn't sound like a big deal, but it was for us. Natalie especially wanted to see Japan (she'd been studying its culture a lot, and could speak Japanese).

N.L.: When it became clear that I won't get the visa, we decided to get married. We couldn't do it earlier for certain legal reasons. The wedding fell on April Fools' day, but it was a good barbecue party on a mountaintop overlooking Berkeley. My mother even managed to visit us from Russia, which is usually almost impossible because of visa problems.

V.D: Still, poor Natalia had to spend three hours a day driving. We liked Berkeley a lot, but we had to move south.

N.L.: It was me who had to look for a new place: I worked in the area, besides, home owners trusted a girl more. I spent a month going through ads, but the only place I could find was a shack with no hot water in Aviso industrial zone. Then one night I went to the mountains above Santa Cruz to look at another house. It was foggy and rainy, the roads were very difficult to navigate, but I found it: two small houses and a vineyard, surrounded by dense redwood forest. In the parking lot, two half-naked men were trying to fix a vine press. I thought it was a wrong address, but it wasn't.

V.D: I was waiting at the telephone, ready to call the police if Natalia didn't phone me by nine o'clock. She called at five to nine, happy:

"I found the house of our dreams!"

N.L.: Now we had our own small garden, ocean view, and the forest around. We were only twenty minutes away from the city, but there were almost no people around. It felt like a remote mountain village somewhere in Nepal: nobody ever locked their doors there, and all people within five miles were almost like one big family. When our city friends came to visit, they sometimes complained about the place being too quiet. We liked it so much that we lived there for two years, then moved to an even better one two miles farther into the forest.

V.D: Abrikos was a legal cat now; her favorite game was to ambush our landlord's golden retriever and charge at her from behind a glass door, scaring her a lot.

N.L.: We were traveling all weekends, so Abrikos felt a bit lonely. She had automatic feeders, and our landlord would come to play with her sometimes, but we decided it would be better for her if we got a second cat. We went to a shelter, and soon found a half-grown kitten. She was smoky-gray, with very soft fur, and looked like a shy, unhappy owl fledgling. On her cage was a little note, warning people that Beanie was an aggressive, mean cat, with a tendency to avoid human contact, and was not to be kept in a household with children.

V.D: It took us two days to get all the paperwork for adoption. I spent most of the time guarding the cage, making sure nobody would get Beani before we did. But nobody else wanted her.

She was very stressed out after the shelter. For the first few weeks, she followed us everywhere, and came up every few minutes to touch noses - her way of kissing. We renamed her Shila (short for Chinchilla). We've never seen a friendlier cat. She's more like a dog - a retriever or a setter.

N.L.: Shila and Abrikos didn't particularly like each other, but they learned to live in peace. In winter they would sleep side by side in front of the wood stove, so beautiful together, gold and silver. We never let them outside: there were lots of coyotes and mountain lions walking around. But we still had to rescue salamanders, lizards, shrews and crickets from their claws every few days: the house was full of wildlife, there was even a family of harvest mice living in one of the walls. Each cat had its favorite prey. Shila could spend hours chasing the cursor at a computer monitor. Abrikos preferred empty film cans: every time she'd catch one, she'd proudly carry it around the house, growling loud.

V.D: Soon we got so used to forest life that we couldn't even think about moving to a city. We had our own water well, firewood, and a small swimming pool. Every winter we had no electricity for up to a week after each storm; we sometimes had to use chainsaws to remove fallen tree from the road on our way to work; but we enjoyed it all.

N.L.: And it was never boring. It can't be boring if there are two cats in the house!                                                      

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