by Pavel Sokolov
Birds took turns singing. As one paused, another would immediately come in. Each of them spoke its own language, not at all concerned about being understood. Then, suddenly, a sharp screeching noise broke in and concealed the birdsongs. Mom started the coffee grinder in the kitchen. The hazy residue of the night’s sleep evaporated. The coffee grinder broke off and bird singing resumed. The window in Julia’s bedroom was open. All she could see through it was birch foliage. The trees swayed in the wind. The leaves quivered in panic, flashing their pale underside. Julia flung the blanket aside and stretched. Got up decisively and headed for the bathroom to take a shower.
A brief stop in the hallway. The dim slough of the mirror reflected her sleepy face and messy hair. The bathroom door was wide open, blocking the passage to the kitchen and thus shielding Julia from mom. After the shower, Julia showed up in the kitchen brisk, and undazed.
Conversations with mom were irritating. So, in her presence, Julia would always subdue the superfluous feeling of joy one gets from simply being young.
“Good morning!”, she said.
“Is it good?” mom replied in a bitter tone. Her face had no make-up, her hair was wet, and the corners of her mouth were dropping down. A look of condemnation in her eyes.
A burdensome silence ensued. After breakfast, washing her coffee cup in the sink, mom asked:
“How many lessons do you have today?”
“What time will you be home?”
“About ten. After the studio.”
Mom went to work.
Late in the afternoon Julia was having dinner in the buzzing beehive that was Tea Spoon Café. Her meal, befitting the name of the place, was a meager pancake and a cup of tea. The scarcity of it helped stay alert for the acting class later in the evening.
Outside a whirlwind of people picked her up and carried her around Sennaya Square and over to Griboyedov Channel Embankment. Cars were slowly moving single file like ants. Tousled branches of cottonwood trees were hanging over the water of the channel. Leisure boat passengers were looking up at the bustling crowd of pedestrians with subtle disdain.
It was end of May, but the radiant sunlight declared that summer had begun. The street was overflowing with traffic noise and weary hustle of people on the sidewalks. Then there was a shaded dreamy side street, a glass door of a front entrance with a white marble staircase inside. The building seemed to be deserted. Julia went up to the second floor and pushed a tall white door with a brass handle.
The former Port Nightclub was empty and dim. Daylight came in sideways from an adjacent space. Vinyl records, suspended from the high ceiling, were turning slowly in the draught. The scruffy walls, once variegated, were now faded. The bar seemed oddly out of place. Chairs stacked up in the dark auditorium were collecting dust. Walls in the stuffy dressing rooms were covered with old concert posters.
About ten minutes later, the door leading form the stairway was opened again, and, one by one, a whole gang of foreigners trickled in. The space was immediately filled with the ruckus of their voices. They were shaking of their backpacks and bags, exchanging excited remarks, curiously eying Julia on the sly. She remembered that Predanov mentioned Zavolotsky bringing in a group of American students for the summer. A tall blond guy caught her attention. He had a wide friendly smile and was looking straight at her.
“Hello!” he was speaking Russian with an accent. “Is this where Zavolotsky theatre studio is located?”
“Yes, it’s here”, she replied. “By the way, I speak English guys.”
There were exclamations of boisterous joy and relief: “Wow, she is the first person we meet here, and she speaks English! Isn’t that amazing?!”, “How awesome is that?!”
Everyone introduced themselves. The guy who spoke Russian was Alexander.
“I am Russian. Born in America, but my parents are from Russia,” he said.
The Americans were getting acclimated, sharing new experiences with one another and taking in the eerie space of Port Club, which had seen better days.
Gradually, Predanov’s students were dribbling in. The class traditionally started with the hardest routine of all – a struggle with one’s own sloth. The gears of the soul refused to turn, submerged in tenacious cold oil of vulgar mundane life. Time seeped away in otiose conversations. Predanov – the acting teacher – walked in at about half past six. He was tall and lean, had a sinew neck and a large bold head, a sharp pointed chin, a roman nose and an estranged look in his eyes. Without saying a word, he walked into the large classroom with his bouncy gait. Here he sat at a small props table and fostered young talent.
After a warmup, they showed their observation sketches. Pavel did a fisherman on an embankment fascinated by his float. Igor, wearing a pink fur hat, did a foreign tourist. He walked around slowly with a silly smile, taking a picture a second. Predanov’s face would light up like a bulb every time he liked something.
“Let’s get our American friends involved. Does any one of you speak Russian?” Predanov asked the newcomers.
“I do,” Alexander replied.
“Very well,” said Predanov. “Just you?”
“Then you translate,” Predanov suddenly looked at Julia.
“Julia, you speak English, correct?” he asked, remembering.
“You could say that,” she confirmed.
“Great! So you can translate English to Russian.”
“Here is what we’ll be doing: one of you come out here and face the audience. Julia, stand here,” he gestured to a spot in front of the group. “Introduce yourself. Just say your name, that’s all. Got it?”
“Hi, my name is Julia,” Julia said in English. Everyone smiled.
“Hi Julia,” someone said.
“You like to hit the ground running, don’t you?” Predanov said. “Wait a minute. So, the rest of you, in the audience, look at Julia. She is beautiful, isn’t she? Imagine that you are seeing her for the first time. You need to picture her entire personality. Come up with as many details as you can. Where she works or goes to school. What she likes and dislikes. Her hobbies, interest, etc. Don’t guess and don’t say things you actually know. Use your imagination. Got it? If your imagination doesn’t work, you are wasting your time here. Then Julia will sit down and someone else will come up here.”
Timid at first, and then getting bolder and bolder, assorted details of Julia’s phantom personality emerged: “She plays basketball”, “Julia is a photographer”, “She likes big transparent umbrellas”, “She has a rich husband”, “Julia plays the harp”, “She is a model”.
“Julia is an English teacher,” Alexander said.
Julia looked at him. He was looking straight at her again. His eyes were sparkling with laughter. His smile was confident and catching. A smile like that is sure to lift your spirits. Because of this and because Alexader guessed her occupation correctly, she returned a happy and candid smile.
After the class, the group decided to go out for drinks. One girl couldn’t make it, she had an early flight to Italy the next day. Igor was advising: “You must try the pizza over there!” “Right, and in Russia you have to buy a fur hat,” Julia thought.
In a huddle they headed down Morskaya towards Nevsky Prospect. The air was cool. The sun was behind them just above the rooftops. It flooded the right side of the street with thick evening light, blinding the store windows.
When the head of the procession reached Nevsky, they stopped to wait for the others. The group gathered again, but the zeal was gone and the enthusiasm had faded. A few faces betrayed a desire to part ways with the rest of the group.
“We are going for a walk around the city,” Alexader said. “You guys are welcome to come with us.”
Some people went to the bus stop, others headed down Nevsky for the Metro station.
“Let’s go to Palace Square,” Julia said, and the group of foreigners headed down Morskaya Street with Julia and Pavel.
The expanse of Palace Square opened up in front of them like a chess board with a giant Queen of the Alexander Column in the middle. The sun was blasting in their faces from the roof of the Admiralty building.
Miniature chess pieces from a travel set were spread around the Queen. They were riding bikes, skateboarding, posing as make-believe kings for pictures with tourists. A pair of miniature horses was harnessed to a vintage carriage.
Half an hour later Julia, Pavel and their new friends were sitting at a table in The Dark Side Café on Konushennaya Street. It was dusk outside, and through the window they could see a pale gray stripe of sky above the buildings across the street. Above them orange lampshades were glowing, muffled in scarves of cigarette smoke.
They were sited in a corner around three tables joined together. Pavel was sitting next to Julia. He was a rather gloomy and quiet guy. Medium height and stocky. His crooked nose swelled into a pockmarked potato. Under thick dark brows, his small eyes were set deep and really close to the nose. The straits of high temples met above the forehead, edging an island covered with reed of stiff hairs.
Alexader was sitting opposite Julia and sharing his story, “My parents immigrated to the United States in nineteen seventy-five. My dad is in artist. He wasn’t allowed to work in the Soviet Union. Now some of his works are in the Guggenheim museum.”
“I think I’ve heard something about that,” Pavel said.
“Are you an acting student?” Julia asked.
“No. I am studying production design at NYU”
“Is Zavolotsky your teacher?” Pavel asked.
“Yes, Zavolotsky is our scenic design professor.”
“How did you like Igor’s sketch of the foreigner?” Pavel asked feverishly.
“It was pretty funny,” Alexander smiled. “I noticed, you can often tell a foreigner by a silly smile. And in cities as beautiful as St. Petersburg tourist are walking around astounded and taking pictures every step of the way.”
“As long as you don’t lose any valuables in astonishment,” Julia said jokingly.
“Still, he shouldn’t have done that sketch in front of you guys,” Pavel insisted. “It wasn’t nice.”
“Actually, Americans do smile more than the Europeans do,” Alexander tried to calm him down. “When you exit the arrivals gate at an American airport, there is always this huge smile looking at you from all sides. Russians would call it a ‘duty smile’, I think. They say, Russians are like coconuts, hard skin on the outside, but soft inside. The Americans are like peaches, soft on the outside with a hard seed inside.”
“Natural science 101,” Pavel grinned. “I liked how Igor advised Nadya to try Pizza in Italy. It’s like coming to Russia to buy a fur hat.”
“All right. Stop picking on him,” Julia said.
Pavel finished his beer and left.
They sat in the café just a little longer and then decided to go walk around the city some more. They crossed the Konushennaya Square and went along the Moika River.
“Your English is really good. How did you learn to speak it?”
“Our school had a special focus on teaching English. Then I majored in English in university. I’ve been teaching English for three years now.”
“Aha, so I guessed your occupation correctly!” Alexander smiled with joy. “Do you like teaching.”
“I liked it at first. We had teachers in the family for several generations. It’s like a family tradition, I guess. But, to be honest, I’m sick of it. It’s an honorable profession, but I won’t do it all my life. It’s a bore! I’m going to be an actress!”
“I see, your intentions are serious,” Alexander smiled. “But it’s hard. Success is not guaranteed.”
“Success is never guaranteed to anyone. But some people achieve it and others give up. Theatre is my passion. I’m so obsessed by it, I think theatre is life. Everything else exists for the benefit of theatre.”
“That’s brash! What’s your plan? Are you going to get a theatre arts degree?”
“I don’t know, it’s complicated. I might apply to the Theatre Academy. What prompted you to major in production design?”
“My dad for sure. I’m interested in all genres of art. Theatre, music… Theatre especially. I think all people are intrinsically actors.”
Julia liked Alexander from the minute they met. At first, she ignored the feeling. This was a routine way to filter out objectionable or frivolous seekers of her benevolence. However, as they talked, she felt the effect of his charm stronger and stronger. Alexander was a tall, handsome guy with genteel looks. He was well mannered and educated and could sustain a conversation on nearly any topic. They found a lot of interests they had in common. He loved Saint Petersburg and was planning to spend his free time in theaters and museums. They exchanged phone numbers. Even though Julia was attracted to Alexander, she tried to remain aloof so as not to betray her emotions.
On Sadovaya Street she looked at her watch. It was past midnight. The Americans were staying in some student hotel on Kazanskaya Street. It didn’t make any sense to walk any further with them. Moreover, Julia suddenly remembered that she never let her mother know she’d be returning home late.
“I need to get across the bridges before they are drawn. You can’t get lost here. Just keep walking straight until you get to Nevsky. Then you’ll be fine,” she said.
They waived down a gypsy cab. The driver seemed upset that the foreigners didn’t need a ride and Julia was the only passenger. He kept silent the entire way.
She realized that she hadn’t called home because of a subconscious apprehension about an unpleasant talk with her mother. She just didn’t want to think about it. The stroll and conversation occupied all her thoughts and emotions. But now she was expecting to be drenched in her mother’s anger. Suddenly, she felt desperate to break out of the ignominious and venomous atmosphere of her home. Her life had been poisoned by constant fear of yet another altercation.
Alexander’s life was clearly very different – dazzling and full of marvelous stories and enviable friendships. He was breathing a different kind of air. The fugacious touch of his strange life invigorated Julia. It suggested the possibility to escape the suffocating care and reproach of her mother.
When Julia came home, she found the apartment quiet and all the lights turned off. She realized that the discharge of her mother’s exasperation had been postponed and would probably be attenuated by the delay. However, in the morning, her mother hardly said a word and sat at breakfast with a resentful look on her face. Julia also tried to keep conversation to a minimum. Her late return of the previous night was never mentioned.
Two days went by in ordinary routine chores and concerns. Then Alexander called her. He wanted to go see Long Day’s Journey into Night at the Maly Drama Theatre and asked if she wanted to come along. Of course, she did.
After the show, Julia left the theatre feeling that life was an easy slant of deep steps, and she had just climbed one step higher. The show was riveting. Alexander raved about it: “The scene design is very authentic! I always notice this stuff. This means they really did a lot of research.” Julia laughed: “I saw an American film version of ‘Crime and Punishment’ recently. There must have been a thousand samovars on the set of that film for authenticity.”
“The characters are really believable,” Alexander continued. “It must be the ‘psychological realism’ tradition that continues since the time of Stanislavsky.”
“The show was outstanding!” Julia agreed. “As far as tradition goes, I think Dodin is much better at staging modern plays. He has no luck with Chekhov, for example. Most actors don’t know what to do with a pause. They just stare into the distance and look sentimental. I guess life has become a lot faster, than it was a hundred years ago.”
“Well, O’Neal is not a modern playwright,” Alexander said. “He is just a little younger than Chekhov. Contemporary to the Futurists. Coincidentally, he was also at war with the public taste and started a revolution in the theatre. Made ordinary man his protagonist.”
“This play is autobiographical, right?”
“Yes. His childhood was not fun. He was never able to have a normal family life as an adult either. He was married three times. Both his sons committed suicide. He renounced his daughter after she married Charlie Chaplin. My father actually knew her personally when she lived in New York after Chaplin’s death.”
“Wow! That’s really interesting! Have you met her?”
“Yes, I have. But I was too young to remember it.”
The quiet Rubinshteina Street with its bright glowing restaurant signs led them to the ever streaming and seething Nevsky Prospekt. They walked down Nevsky to Dumskaya Street. It was reeking and ringing with anticipation of the night’s bash. A melody, dreary as the smell of a drunk’s breath, emanated from a bar. “Oh, what a woman…, what a woman,” a hoarse, low-pitched voice was drawling. Next to the bar a topless, scrawny man with his hands resting high on a solid, wooden gate was leaning forward and vomiting. The song in the next bar was perky: “Woman, I don’t want to dance. I don’t want to dance!” Across the street, under a neon sign reading ‘Feather Row’, was a crowd of glamorously dressed young people wishing to squeeze into a night club. A little further – under frayed, yellow arches – the smug, sassy, decadent aesthetes of The Dacha Café were drinking beer and smoking. Alexander and Julia turned into Lomonosova Street and went into Hell’s Bells. The place was smoky and loud. All the seats at the bar and most of the tables were taken. They stayed here a little bit. Julia didn’t want to come home late, and said she had to make the last train. Shortly before midnight Alexander walked her to Gostiny Dvor station and then went to The Dacha.
Two moonfaced bouncers were at the door. The place was packed. Alexander had to make his way to the bar through a dense mass of elbows, shoulders and backs. He would say: “Excuse me.” Faces turned to him – joyous, indifferent, intrigued or haughty. Every once in a while, he met people moving in the opposite direction, holding in their hands plastic cups of beer full to the brim, not spilling a drop. He mostly heard English with various accents. The crowd got thicker in front of the bar. Alexander found a gap and first put his hand on the bar, then moved in sideways and turned to make some room for himself with his shoulders. The barman noticed him and gave an affable smile.
Alexander took a sip of cold beer and looked around. There wasn’t any reason to move away from the bar. He chatted with the bar man. With his background it was simple to start a conversation with virtually anyone. When asked about his accent, he had a ready answer: “I was born in America, but my parents are from here.” This guaranteed some interest and curiosity.
The tall, blaring bully that was leaning on Alexander from the right soon disappeared. His seat was now taken by a smiling, dark-haired young girl. She was a few inches shorter than Alexander. The luring, bare skin of her knees and thighs glared down below. The girl was engaged in a lively conversation with a friend sitting to the right of her, though she was palpably aware of Alexander’s presence. A few times, as if by accident, her elbow brushed against his arm. A few minutes later she turned to him.
“Could you throw something at the barman? He is pretending not to notice us,” she said.
A conversation between them sparked up instantly – his background was of service again. The girl’s name was Marina. She told Alexander about her studies at the Culture Institute, where she was the class elder, and about donating blood and using the money to party.
They sat at the bar drinking beer for a while. Marina’s girlfriend was visible somewhere on the periphery of his perception at first and soon disappeared. They moved into the adjacent room and tried playing foosball. The balls flew in all directions, except where they wanted them to go. The game caused more laughs than excitement and they soon grew bored with it. Then they made friends with a fun group of three British guys, one Russian guy and four Russian girls. They left The Dacha tipsy and high-spirited when the sky was a clear light blue and the air was filled with scents of early morning – a mixture of hackberry and the vapors of beer spilt on the sidewalks.
They stopped a gypsy cab and got in the back seat. In the cab Marina started unbuckling his belt and unzipping his fly. That felt adventurous, as if it bonded them in a mischievous and naughty conspiracy. The unwitting driver was making politically incorrect jokes with a silly smile on his face.
Marina lived close by – near The New Holland Island. The tall bay windows of her room faced the Moyka River. Wildly overgrown shrubs flooded with the early morning sunlight and hanging low over the water concealed the gloomy brick loaf of the former prison. The furnishing of the room consisted exclusively of a mattress laid directly on the floor, stacks of books along the wall and a pink CD player.
Alexander had vague recollections of acrobatics in bed as well as a conversation about BDSM and about a mysterious boyfriend who should be coming to town in a couple of days. Then a dark silent void. He woke up in early afternoon and looked around the room, bewildered for a few seconds. Then remembered where he was. A painless hangover seemed appropriate for the peculiar circumstances he was in. He was alone in the room. There was blissful hollowness in his soul and a sensation of unusual freedom in his numb limbs, as if he’d shed a heavy shell. He took a deep breath of city air streaming into an open window, put on his rumpled clothes reeking of cigarette smoke, and went looking for the bathroom.
He rubbed his face with ice cold water until it felt as if lots of tiny needles were pinching his cheekbones. The procedure made him feel invigorated. The communal apartment seemed oddly deserted. Quiet voices reverberated through its empty spaces. The ceilings were so high, they were hardly visible. Alexander entered the kitchen and found Marina and her girlfriend he saw in the bar yesterday. The kitchen was the size of a school gym. The walls were painted green up to about two meters, and then continued as dirty white to indefinite height. Gas stoves were lined up along one wall with pipes thrown up in a synchronous salutation. The two girls turned out to be roommates. They were sitting on the window sill, smoking cigarettes and discussing their mutual friends. Alexander bumped a cigarette from them.
A jet stream of smoke came out of his mouth, swirled and clouded the dusty rays of sun light, then floated up and disappeared. Soon the conversation of two strangers, which Alexander had nothing to add to bored him and he left. He came out of the building to the Moyka River Embankment and headed towards St. Isaak Cathedral.
The latest rift between Julia and her mother started about a year ago. Mom believed that Julia should continue her education and get a graduate degree. Everyone on the mother’s side of the family was a teacher, and Julia was supposed to continue the tradition. After about a year of teaching at a school Julia realized that teaching could only be a temporary occupation for her and would be followed by brighter and greater things. What specifically they would be was not quite clear, but a graduate degree was definitely not one of them.
After joining the theatre studio Julia became obsessed with theatre. She thought about applying to the Theatre Academy and realized that another degree would need to be paid for. She didn’t know how to come up with the money for school. Meanwhile, her theatre ‘hobby’ seemed dangerous and was a source of constant irritation to her mother. Now, on top of that, Julia often stayed out late.
They were going out with Alexander. Scrutinizing paintings by Filonov in The Russian Museum. Sunbathing on the lawns of The Mars Field. Drinking grappa at the sidewalk café on Italianskaya Street. Strolling through the deserted parks of Oranienbaum. Walking on the cottonwood fuzz covered sidewalks of Petrogradskaya. They watched a magical production of Exit the King. Got drunk and deafened by music in Achtung Baby with Alexander’s friends. Once, at four in the morning, they were walking through Dvortsovaya Square. A drizzle started and stopped and started again. There wasn’t a single other person in the square, and, hiding in the arch of the General Staff building, an unseen musician was playing a trumpet. They took shelter from the rain on the covered porch of The New Hermitage, by the feet of the Atlantes entwined with the swollen blood vessels. Then they stopped a gypsy cab and a half hour later were in Julia’s apartment. Mom was spending the weekend at the summer house.
The next day they woke up late. The sun was high and hot, melting the dark green birch leaves. There was no wind. Along with the summer air, noise of the sprightly Sunday bustle was coming into the room. Kids were screaming with joy. Cars were zipping by in the street. A traffic cop sounded his air horn and yelled something in his megaphone. Suddenly the lock on the apartment door snapped. The door opened, and somebody came in. Alexander looked at Julia as his eyes grew larger with amazement. A mischievous smile lit up on his face.
“Game over. Mom is back,” Julia said. “That’s a bummer. Mom knows how to mess things up.”
“What do we do?” Alexander asked.
“Get dressed, obviously,” Julia smiled. “Let’s go in the kitchen and have breakfast.”
At breakfast they felt a bit constrained. They spoke in soft, quiet voices. Mom peeked into the kitchen for second, muttered a cold ‘Hello’, and disappeared into her room. Alexander’s mood turned sour. He quickly finished his breakfast and left, pleading some urgent chores he had to run. Julia locked the door behind him and returned to the kitchen to finish her coffee. A Sunday that could have been hot, leisurely and imbued with sea air, was shot down just as it was taking off, faded and became steeped in the bleak tranquility of the apartment.
A few minutes later mom came into the kitchen looking like a cat returning to its favorite spot after an intruder had left. Without uttering a word and not looking at Julia, she made herself a cup of tea and got some cookies out of a cupboard. She wiped some breadcrumbs off the table, sat in her seat by the window with a grimace of annoyed reproof. Still not looking at Julia, she asked:
“How are your graduate school applications coming along?”
“They are not.”
Julia felt there was a storm coming, but she was unable to get up and walk away. It was as if avoiding the fight today she would only postpone it. Mom’s regular fits of exasperation were a source of constant fear, always present in Julia’s mind, usually hibernating, and rising at first signs of another altercation. The fear felt like a lump in her throat and something sour on her tongue. She could only make it go away by accepting the challenge. She had to stand tall and face the surge of her mother’s rage, and stump it out and chase it away.
“Do you plan to apply?”
“No, I do not!”
“You have no heart! I worry about you every day. Do you plan to be a bum for the rest of your life?! You are running around giving lessons. Is that a job?!
“Mom, what do you mean ‘be a bum’?! I am doing theatre. You know that!”
“I see what you are doing! What’s this theatre studio good for? Finding a sugar daddy? You need to stand firm on your feet, do you understand?”
“For god’s sake, mom! What are you talking about? Have some decency!”
“You need to have some decency! If you are looking to get married, guess what, he’ll play you and dump you. Mark my word!”
“You should be the one to know! Dad left you because you were a bitch. I won’t live with you for much longer, don’t worry. You mark my word!”
A couple weeks later Julia and Pavel were at their friend Lena’s birthday party. The three of them had been classmates at school. Lena lived with her parents in a new apartment building on Parnas. Mom and dad have magnanimously relocated to their summer house for a few days.
The party was winding down. Some guests have already left. Some were sleeping on the couch in the living room. Julia, Pavel and Lena were in the kitchen finishing off the wine.
“Lena, we haven’t talked since forever,” Pavel said. “Where are you working these days?”
“In a glossy magazine,” Lena said.
“Well… A glossy one.”
“That’s money!” Pavel said. “When was the last time we saw each other? We should meet more often.”
“By the way, Lena is getting married,” Julia said. “So, we are not going to see her at all.”
“Wow! Didn’t see that coming!” Pavel said. “So why won’t we see you. Are you going to follow your husband to Siberia, like the Decembrist wives?”
“No, nothing like that!”
“He is a DA, or something, right?” Julia said.
“Yep. Works at the Attorney General’s office in Moscow.”
“That’s money!” Pavel said. “Where did you guys meet?”
“In a night club.”
“He owns the club too, doesn’t he?” Julia asked.
“Yep. Him and his friend.”
“He can’t own a night club, he is a state official,” Pavel said.
“Nothing is impossible if you try hard enough,” Julia said smiling.
“Well, I don’t think we’ll see much of Julia either,” Lena said. “She is moving to the States with the American guy.”
“You mean Alexander?” Pavel looked surprised. “I had no idea it was that serious.”
“Oh, come on! I haven’t been invited to the states,” Julia said.
“He’ll get a visa for you, I am sure,” Lena said. “That’s where you’ll get your theatre degree. That’s real money!”
When Julia and Pavel left Lena’s party, the subway had been long closed. A rowdy bunch of young people were trying to hail down a ride. Some madcap driver showed up and picked up a few people. Julia and Pavel waited for about ten minutes. No other cars were in site. They walked out to Engelsa Avenue.
An old, beat up Lada with dim headlights came rattling towards them. The driver stopped on the opposite side of the street and rolled down his window. “Where to?” he asked. “First to Grazhdanka,” Pavel said, “and then to Vasilievsky Island.” The driver rolled up his window and sped away leaving a cloud of stinky smoke. “It’s impossible to leave this place,” Pavel yelled, looking upward, as if appealing to God for help.
They started walking up Engelsa towards Prosvescheniya Avenue.
“One of my friends lives in America,” Pavel said.
“Who is that?”
“My parents’ friends Zaslavkys. Their son Sergey. We were friends when we were kids. He came to St. Petersburg and got married recently. I think they met on the internet and went out for a while.”
“How did they go out, if he lives in the States?”
“Sometimes they met in France, sometimes in Spain. They travelled all over Europe together. Now they live in New York.”
On Prosvescheniya they finally hailed down a gypsy cab.
Warm summer days were running out fast like sand in an hour glass. The temperamental St. Pete summer ripened, got covered with giant burdock leaves and was relentlessly dragging the sunset south-west.
Alexanders stay in St. Petersburg was nearing its end. Julia expected to have a conversation with him that would bring clarity to their future relationship. She didn’t know how to start the conversation and waited for Alexander to take the initiative.
One day in late July Julia and Alexander agreed to meet by the fountain in front of the Admiralty at six in the afternoon. Her last class got cancelled and she had some free time. She was strolling down Fontanka Embankment past St. Michael’s Castle. A crowd of loafing spectators was congregated over the Little Finch statue. A bare-chested man’s figure protruded out of the water. The young man, unfazed by the onlookers, would dip in the water, pick up the coins tossed in the river by tourists, and put them in a bag. Lost in thought, Julia walked over the bridge and started crossing the street. She heard an engine revving and looked to the left. Behind the windshield with the sky reflected in it she saw the driver’s chubby face, buzz cut, indifferent expression. Before she felt any fright, she leaped forward and painfully sprained her ankle. She threw her arm with the purse awkwardly to the side to keep balance, limped onto the sidewalk and turned around. A large white Mercedes with the traffic police markings sped away. “Jackass!” she thought.
Julia went into the Summer Garden and sat on a bench. For roughly twenty minutes she watched the swans and ducks swimming in the pond and the pigeons soliciting for food scraps by the ice cream cart. The pain receded. Julia got up. Stepping on the sprained foot was almost painless. She started walking down the central alley and then turned right. This part of the garden was practically deserted. She came to the Fontanka bank and walked down the granite steps to the water. Waves, impassive and indifferent to everything, ran over the surface of the water and shattered against the granite. Julia watched them for a while, thinking that, in the exact same way, waves were slapping this embankment ten, twenty, a hundred years ago.
She came out of the Garden onto the Neva embankment, walked to Suvorov Square and crossed over to Millionnaya Street. A petite girl in police uniform was closing the heavy gate of the Marble Palace. Behind the wrought iron fence, in the damp shade of the trees, a stout Alexander III sat on his corpulent horse. Millionnaya street was deserted and calm. The sun roasted the asphalt. On the bridge over the Winter Channel she saw an unusual couple. The man, about fifty years old, conspicuously a foreigner, was standing with his back against the bridge railing. A woman of about thirty-five was standing in front of him. She was saying something to him in a serious tone, then turned and started walking away. Stopped for a second, turned around impetuously, then kept walking away without looking back. The man just stood there, crushed and desolate.
Julia walked into Palace Square. Little figures of people were crossing the square in all possible directions, silent in the muffled hum of the city. Julia crossed the square, dreadfully walked through several lanes of a traffic jam, and entered the Alexander Garden. Benches were arranged in a circle around the fountain. Julia sat on one of them. Blissful, quiet life was rocking gently in the sunlight, like a boat anchored in a cove. The city was buzzing in its eternal commotion outside the garden. Alexander showed up soon. They walked deeper into the park away from tourists and moms with strollers and sat on a bench. A dilapidated replica of Farnese Hercules towered over them.
Alexander looked reserved and contemplative, as if he wanted to have a conversation about something but didn’t know how to begin. Suddenly, his voice sounded impassive: “You know, after I leave, we won’t be able to stay in touch.”
“Why not?” Julia was astounded.
“Well, because… How do I say this… I am engaged.”
Alexander looked at her, waiting for her reaction. For a split-second Julia was puzzled. Then she felt a sensation, as if a vein got bloated in her throat. Her lips tightened, and her face froze, concealing resentment. But resentment glared in her eyes. Alexander turned his head and stared at children playing in the distance.
“So, you had a vacation fling,” Julia said.
Alexander turned to her again: “I am sorry.”
Julia got up and started walking towards Palace Square. Alexander caught up with her.
“Go away,” she said.
He stopped and watched her leaving for a second, then turned around and walked in the opposite direction.
Julia’s first reaction was rather light, as if she hadn’t quite realized what had happened at first. On the first day she simply resented having been dumped. That had never happened to her before. All her previous break ups were initiated by her.
Then, a day later, she was overwhelmed by a surge of cold, heavy depression that would recede and roll in again in the following days. Work diverted her, and when she was teaching, she would almost forget that Alexander existed. But as soon as she was left alone with her feelings, dejection would set in again. She was aggravated with herself for making such a mistake, and the heavier her gloom became, the more she scolded herself for having such high expectations. She would curse Alexander and then suddenly hope that he would call and everything would be fine again. Then she hated her own weakness, and Alexander seemed repugnant again. One of her worst emotions during these days was disappointment with people in general. She felt she could never trust anyone now.
Mom was out of town, and Julia was living in the apartment by herself. She had been enjoying this, but now solitude accentuated the dejection that descended on her. She felt conflicting emotions. “I wish mom was here. That would probably make me feel better,” she thought at times. Then, suddenly shuddered, remembering that mom would be back in town soon. Somehow, she would feel guilty and embarrassed in front of mom.
On Sunday they were supposed to have their last class with the American students at the theatre studio. That morning Julia felt she wouldn’t be able to bring herself to go to the studio. She spent almost the entire day lying on the couch, having nothing to occupy herself with. When darkness fell, she didn’t turn the lights on, didn’t move at all, just watched the windows in the building opposite the street light up in different colors. The window was opened a crack and she could hear the wind howling outside.
Julia closed her eyes and soon felt as though she was tiny as an ant lying in a corner of a giant empty room. When she opened her eyes, this feeling disappeared, but as soon as she closed them again, it came back. She turned over to lie on her stomach and hid her face in the pillow. Then she felt a sensation as if something heavy was weighing down on her entire body, as if she was covered by a blanket of rock. She could clearly see herself lying on the couch in a big empty and dark apartment. Everything around her seemed dismal. She felt an unbearable fear of the future. Suddenly, she felt there was nothing cheerful ahead. Dreams of the theatre seemed futile. Julia could see no prospects for herself in any other profession. The thought of seeing her mother depressed her.
Julia’s throat was dry. She got up and, a little unsteady, walked to the kitchen. In the darkness, she could see a bottle on the counter. It was half empty, with a plastic cap and a greasy yellow label. “What if I drink that?” she thought. She felt a sudden rush of daring excitement. As if someone was taunting her: “You can’t do it, can you?” At the same time, Julia felt that with this single act she could solve all her problems. She grabbed the bottle, tore the cap off, and swallowed two gulps of the liquid. Sharp knives slashed the inside of her throat. She felt an impulse to vomit, but the hot lava was already flowing down her throat. She felt short of breath and was gulping for air. Not seeing anything in the darkness she rushed through the hallway and ran out of the apartment. The stairway was dimly lit. In a fit of panic she started ringing the neighbor’s doorbell.
The neighbor, an elderly woman named Olga Pavlovna, first opened the door just a crack and peeked out. When she saw Julia, she opened the door wide. Julia tried to say something, but her throat could only produce a croak. “What’s wrong Julie?!” Olga Pavlovna let her in.
Stabbing pain pierced her stomach. Her head was spinning. The old lady was saying something, but Julia couldn’t hear. She leaned against the wall, then sat down on something soft. She felt nauseous. Then she couldn’t see anything. A sort of white noise consumed everything.
About the Author:
Pavel Sokolov was born in Russia and to date lived about half of his life in Russia and half in the United States. This gave him a good understanding of both cultures, and he sees that people in the two countries have more in common than many are willing to admit. As Pavel says, “It seems that people around the world are learning more and more about each other, and there is a great interflow of cultures.”