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British actress Olivia Williams with sabre fish.
It was late in the summer of 1985. Her sandy blond hair washed over her red sateen jacket as she leaned against the deck railing of the Odessa, Ukraine-bound Soviet cruise ship. She was small-boned and tan, with finely formed facial features; baby-blue jeans hugged her petite curves. She gazed out at the cobalt sea, watching it shimmer where the sun broke through the clouds and wandered along in silvery columns of light.
I was seated on a chaise lounge nearby. She turned around and her eyes, jade green and wistful, chanced upon mine, then shifted bashfully away when she perceived I was looking at her. I got up and went to introduce myself.
We started talking. Oksana, as I will call her here, was 19 and studying fashion design at a Moscow institute. I was 24, a graduate student of Russian history in the States, and traveling around the Soviet Union for two months with a tour group of Americans.
We wandered the deck, chatting and smiling at each other. Chilled by the breeze and appearing somewhat distracted, she drew her jacket snug and asked what I thought of the Soviet Union. As I started to answer, her gaze froze. A matron in a white smock, one of the ship’s employees, got up from her deck chair station ahead of us and, giving Oksana an icy look, went inside. I stopped talking and Oksana, uttering a soft “poka” (“see you later”) strolled on. I understood I was not to follow her. I saw no more of her that day.
At 7 the next morning, the loudspeaker on the ceiling of the cabin crackled and a bugle blast resounded, and then came a screechingly loud message in Russian: “Greetings to passengers of shift A! Arise and report to the deck for morning calisthenics! Our motto is sound mind in a sound body! Greetings to passengers of shift B! Arise and report to wing 2 of dining hall 1 for breakfast! Greetings to passengers of …”
Every day began with a rousing address and instructions for all aboard. Our tour was designated group C so that we would perform calisthenics and eat at separate times from the Soviet passengers. Perestroika was still two years away; fraternizing between Soviets and foreigners was not forbidden, but some Soviets, aware of potential consequences from KGB agents keeping subtle track, tended to avoid us anyway.
The loudspeaker cackled on, and Rob, my cabinmate, grumbled and rolled over in his bunk, his head still heavy from the previous night’s vodka bash. “Oh, those sons of bitches! Can’t they let us sleep even one morning!” He lay looking at the loudspeaker for a minute, then got up, muttering, “I’ll fix those bastards!” He climbed atop a stool and, using a pocketknife, took to disassembling the loudspeaker, at first carefully, then with less than precise hacking motions. Finally the screeching stopped; the speaker dangled an eviscerated mess of wires, broken white plastic and microphone. He climbed down and went back to sleep. I dressed and went out to the deck, hoping to run into Oksana.
One of the breakfast shifts was ending and people were drifting out of the dining hall. Inside, at the back, I espied Oksana, alone and gazing through a porthole. I lingered long enough that she saw me, then strolled around behind a lifeboat. A minute later, from under the boat, I saw tiny white pumps padding my way.
“Did you enjoy your calisthenics?” I asked.
“Oh, come on!” she giggled. “I never go to those!”
There was a warm languor in her eyes, but a tint of despondency lingered there, too. As we huddled behind the lifeboat, she traced for me the outlines of her life: She was dutifully studying for her fashion degree; she came, like many Soviets, to the Black Sea for her August vacation and was here with her mother; she yearned to see Paris and London and other cities in the West, but never did she believe she would be able to leave the Soviet Union. (“Da shto ty!” “Oh, come on!” she would exclaim dismissively when I suggested that maybe someday she would be able to travel.) She recounted her dreams with a shrug. She expected little from her days: They would equal the sum of their hours and no more. Still, I sensed that she could experience happiness more intensely than I, and this drew me to her; the attraction mixed with pity that I felt for her, this delicate lonely girl with wan green eyes who seemed afraid to hope for anything, made me want to give her everything.
A blond grande dame passed by the lifeboat and said in a secretive voice, “I think Soviet-American relations are warming up.” It was Oksana’s mother. I stepped out to introduce myself, but she continued on her way, leaving only perfume in her wake. At that moment I caught sight of a twitchy cad dressed in a gray polyester suit and clip-on tie taking up a position a few yards farther on along the railing. He lit a cigarette and leered at us, then looked toward the sea, then back at us. Oksana, explaining nothing, walked off and rejoined her mother.
I left the lifeboat and walked over to him. He smelled of sweat and Kosmos cigarettes, and looked away when I approached; his fingernails were stained yellow brown, as were his teeth. He might have been a junior KGB agent; if he was not that, he was a freelancer hoping to scrounge together enough compromising information about Oksana to report to the KGB. But I would never know. I left the deck to look for my group.
Over and over during the next week Oksana and I met discreetly, but with increasing ardor, at appointed times by this or that lifeboat, near the windy bow or by the stern, often parting suddenly at her behest. She was good and honest and beautiful; I felt more and more desire for her, for a moment of intimacy with her, and my passion rose in direct proportion to the efforts of our ever-near and malodorous comrade to interfere. Wherever Oksana and I lingered long, we were visited by the smell of sweat and Kosmos cigarettes, accosted by the sound of a clip-on tie flapping in the salty sea breeze.
On our last night before reaching Odessa, we met by the lounge, then slipped separately up and down various stairways to ditch our snitch. We found each other by a secluded bench on the dark uppermost deck and threw ourselves into each other’s arms. It was late August, and already the sea was churning with autumn winds, awash in spindrift now and again frosted by the beams of an evasive moon. We huddled on the bench, exploring each other, enjoying each other with the abandon of youth — and despair. Relationships between Soviets and Americans were tough to keep alive then; letters went missing, phones were tapped, visas were denied. For her there could be long-lasting consequences: Some amatory indiscretion on my part might, for example, get her expelled from her institute. But for now none of that mattered. There were no politics and no tomorrow on the windswept upper deck.
Just before dawn, having exchanged addresses and pledged to write, we kissed and said goodbye.
The next morning there was an urgent rapping on the cabin door. Rob stumbled out of bed and opened it. The matron in white pointed at the disabled loudspeaker hanging from the ceiling. Her Russian was strident: “You should be ashamed! You have destroyed state property! Is this any way to behave? And you have missed the wake-up call! We’re now in Odessa! Pack up and join your group at once!”
I threw on my clothes, grabbed my bag and, leaving Rob, raced out onto the deck. I saw Oksana, and we stole charged looks at each other as we walked down separate gangplanks, I with my monitored group, she with her mother and the other Soviets bound for the train station and the trip back north.
In September, after I left the Soviet Union and arrived in Greece, I began sending her lovesick postcards every day. They never reached her.
If my postcards from Greece never reached her, my later letters from the States did. She was effusive in her responses (“My dearest, most tender Dzheffchik — may I call you that?”), and I wrote back with my passion dampened somewhat by the awareness that a third pair of eyes was no doubt reading every word and registering our tendernesses in a cardboard folder marked Case No. such and such. She described her days at the institute, her plans for visiting Pyatigorsk during next year’s August vacation. In the fifth or sixth letter she posed a question: What, in general, were my views on marriage? I wasn’t sure, I answered; I was still in graduate school and would have to finish before I could take that step, and that would be a couple of years at least.
After that I heard no more from her.
I wrote asking what was wrong and received no answer. I wrote again, and again heard nothing. My Soviet imigri friends in the States said that either the KGB had decided to cut off our relations at the mention of marriage (as was common in such situations) or perhaps she had stopped writing herself, having decided that if I had no intention of marrying I would be of no use to her. Whatever the reason, without knowing for sure I was hurt and perplexed.
Seven years passed. During those years the Soviet Union disintegrated. In the summer of 1992 I moved to Uzbekistan to set up a Peace Corps program, and that autumn my job took me back to Russia. As soon as I arrived in Moscow I called Oksana from my hotel. I was nearly trembling at the thought of seeing her and stepping back into my past, at somehow reliving one of the most exciting and intriguing weeks of my life. But most of all I wanted to find out what had put an end to our correspondence and whether we still had a chance.
“Well, I’m married,” she said flatly after a flurry of greetings and queries, “and I have a baby daughter. Anyway, let my husband and me come pick you up for dinner. Wait for us at the hotel entrance.”
It was a stormy night. At the appointed hour I came down to the vestibule and looked out through the glass doors into the gloom, noting how the pale yellow orbs of the street lamps caught the streaks of descending rain. In the back seat of a car parked off the driveway sat a petite but dark-haired woman. Not blond Oksana, I thought, and turned away.
A car door slammed.
It was Oksana. She now had chestnut hair, and her once doll-like features had matured into the lineaments of womanly beauty. She wore a leaf-print skirt and red leather boots. Grigori, her husband, followed her out of the car. He was in a Western suit; he was cool but polite. We shook hands.
Back at their apartment, Grigori had a business call to make and stepped out of the living room.
“Oh, Jeff! Your letters were so tender,” she intoned, her head cocked to one side. “I have no idea why they stopped coming.” Grigori stepped back in, but it was as if he wasn’t there. She went on. “They were so tender. I felt so romantic receiving them, I felt I had a future. I remember every moment on the ship and how sad it was to leave you.”
“I, well, yes …” I felt the same, but what about Grigori? He listened impassively, offering me hors d’oeuvres and wine. The phone rang again and he left the room.
I hardly knew what to say. So much had changed in the world since our week on the Black Sea. I had changed, and she had married. I found unexpectedly that I could not instantly revive the feelings I had nurtured for her, and I had many questions to ask.
“Oksana, are you happy?”
She sat back and her gaze grew opaque. “Grandma is sick and Mama isn’t doing well. Grigori works hard but it’s tough to make ends meet.” She kneaded her tiny hands. She was as beautiful as ever, but her poetic youthful melancholy had turned into solid adult resignation.
“I read your letters over and over,” she continued. “I could never throw them away. I married Grigori because he was crazy about me — what else was I to do with my life?”
“Well, what about your daughter? Tell me about her.”
“What is there to tell? Mama takes care of her. We’re too busy.” She kneaded her hands and cocked her head again. “Oh, Jeff, why didn’t you come back to the Soviet Union? Why did you stay away?”
I mumbled an inadequate response. There were too many things to explain briefly and concisely: I could have talked about the difficulties of obtaining Soviet visas, the rigorous schedule of my studies, the cost of traveling to Moscow from the States, but I did not. These were not the only, or even the main, reasons that I did not return. I should have told her that I had enjoyed our time on the boat but that my impulse to sweep her off her feet was only an impulse. I was not, back then, of the age to marry; I was too naive and frivolous to realize that in practical terms our relationship would mean more to her than to me. Thinking these thoughts, I felt guilty, and I felt a rush of tender pity and attraction toward her.
Grigori came back, this time to stay. He turned out to be articulate and friendly, and it was clear he loved Oksana; he seemed a much more devoted husband than I would have been. My conversation with him ranged over perestroika and market reforms and his earnest desire to make money to give Oksana everything she wanted. He was working hard, late and on weekends, trying to move up in the Moscow office of a multinational corporation. Oksana paid little attention to our talk; she ate and looked down.
After dinner we drove back to the hotel, Grigori and I taking the front seats, Oksana the back. We whirred along the rain-slick Garden Ring Road in silence, passing over the Moscow River via Kutuzovsky Bridge, the illuminated marble fortress of the Supreme Soviet on one side, the rectangular Hotel Radisson-Slavyanskaja, where I was staying, on the other.
Grigori and I said a pleasant goodbye, and Oksana asked me to call the next time I was in town. I said I would. On my way inside the vestibule, I turned and caught her gaze: She was staring from the back-seat window, a look of penetrating, unmitigated loss on her face. I stared back, transfixed; I could do nothing except reproach myself. Why hadn’t I persisted with our relationship, flown love struck to Moscow? What had stopped me? Why had I not understood the promise our relationship held, and why had I been so reckless with her fate and my own?
They drove off into the rainy night.
The next summer I moved to Moscow permanently. I did not call Oksana, feeling that to have done so would have aroused intractable emotions in both of us, and I wanted to be no home wrecker. But often I found myself wondering how she was doing.
Three years passed. In 1996 spring came early and brought a delirium of long blue days and brief musky nights, nights that dissolved in the warmth of lavender dawns. Unexpectedly, Oksana called to wish me a happy birthday. I felt a wave of excitement on hearing her voice, and without thinking I asked her to dinner. We agreed to meet at Mayakovsky Square.
At the appointed hour I stood waiting at Mayakovsky Square beneath the bronze statue of the eponymous poet, luxuriating in the vesperal light, feeling as though somehow this evening was going to prove decisive.
A Volga taxi drove up and Oksana stepped out. She wore a suit of Parisian couture; she had cropped her hair, which she had dyed red, into a pageboy cut.
“Hello,” she said, her eyes restive.
“Hello. How are you?”
“Oh, where are we going to eat?”
“What about the American Bar and Grill?” It was a trendy place I thought she might enjoy.
She looked askance. “What, you mean eat burgers? No thanks. Anyway, that’s a hangout for young people.” She said she preferred the upscale Italian restaurant a block away on Tverskaya Street, so we went there to eat.
The candle at our table flickered, the waiters were attentive, Oksana relaxed. But after a while she glanced this way and that and fidgeted with her napkin. Her hands, I noticed, were red and chapped — from doing dishes, apparently.
And not only dishes. “My husband and I had to knock down a wall in our apartment recently for renovations. Can you believe it? I was swinging a sledgehammer!” She was not amused: This was not something a husband should allow his wife to do. She was also exhausted from taking care of her invalid grandmother; her mother, too, was recovering from a stroke and needed attention. Grigori’s salary, though high by Russian standards, didn’t suffice for the lifestyle she desired; she upbraided him, saying he should be trying harder to earn more for her. “Unfortunately, my husband is not capable of supporting me in the fashion I would like. He lacks initiative. It’s a shame, really.”
“Well, he’s trying.” I protested. “Doesn’t that count?”
She looked away. “Oh, come on!” After a pause she said in a reconciliatory tone, “Why don’t we talk about you? What have you been doing? Traveling?”
“Yes, I’ve been in Morocco and Zaire lately. I …”
Her eyes wandered and she sighed, cutting me off: “Morocco, yes of course. You have such a life. So exotic. But what do I have? What could I have had …” She was married, had a child, a routine life — she said all this as though recounting penances imposed on her by a cruel and arbitrary judge. Finally, she clenched her napkin again.
“I waited so hard for your letters after you left the Soviet Union. I had this dream of marrying a foreigner and moving to a beautiful country. After you there was this rich Cuban who was studying here, and he was in love with me, but I was waiting for you, so I turned down his proposal. But then eventually I had to get married, didn’t I?”
“What else was I to do? Now, look at how my life has turned out. I have no life, no life, no life at all. All I do is take care of Mama and Grandma and my daughter. Oy, I have no life!”
I sat back. Our eyes dropped to our empty plates. I tried to console her, but my words sounded hollow in view of her pain, and she was not looking at me anyway. I suddenly wondered what I was doing there with her. What I had taken for despair in her eyes 11 years before might have been cynicism, and who would have used whom? It was as if I had never known the person sitting in front of me.
There was no way to change anything now — or at least no way we were prepared to take. The waitress brought us our pasta. With the candlelight flickering over her red hair and fine couture, over her chapped hands, she asked me to help Grigori find a better job with a Western company in Moscow, and I agreed. Probably that was why she had called me. We finished our meal in silence.
She had felt the same passion on the ocean liner that I had, but passion for her was to lead to a concrete result: to marriage, to a secure and prosperous life in the West. I had been as reckless as I was naive then, but who could blame her for wanting these things? Who could fault her for a calculating approach to an emotional matter that would decide her entire life? I had regretted letting her go, but she would have used me for all the most pardonable reasons, and I would have resented it and ended up miserable.
After dinner we walked back to the square with little left to say. We hugged curtly, and she slipped through the door to the subway and was gone. I turned and started walking back home, and that was the last I saw of her.
Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and the author of six nonfiction books, including Facing the Congo and Murderers in Mausoleums. Follow @JeffreyTayler1 on Twitter. More Jeffrey Tayler.
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