Once upon a time there were three maidens. In a Moscow hotel room. With me. This was 1991 in what was still the USSR, and I was 14 and stripped to my boxers and had still never been kissed. Unless you count the lipstick blooms that, for the past hour, three American exchange students had been planting on my skin. Now, one was perched in the window, smiling around her cigarette; another — at 16 the oldest — was deciding who would get me first; nearby, Sue stood watching, her what-kids-we-still-are eyes seeming unsure of what to do.
The older girl knew. She was my first kiss. It should have been Sue. From then on, for most of my life, that would become an echoing refrain: It should have been Sue. But it wasn’t. Not that night, not for another 20 years.
At dawn, she and I snuck out into the slowly brightening world. The city seemed empty of everyone but us. It was snowing. In Red Square, our footprints were a single track through the vast white. Above, the crimson star glowed, gold-tipped spires spiking the sky, and when the bells began it was as if we’d stumbled into a fable. I remember how full of magic the world felt then. I remember wondering what sharing that would mean for us once we were home.
Home, I found it wouldn’t mean much unless I managed to do something with it. But — despite parents’ concerns, calls for condoms handed out on next year’s exchange — I remained not only a virgin, but scared. Through the ninth grade social, the semester’s end, into a warm July night with “Edward Scissorhands” flickering across the town common’s outdoor screen, Sue waited. Halfway through the movie she took my hand, led me toward the private darkness of the college football field. On dew-wet grass, we lay looking at the stars. In the distance: the speaker-crackled soundtrack of another fable. I could feel her watching me, willing me to turn, to kiss her. The stars stayed still. Stayed still. She stood.
And, after that night, was as gone from me as, by winter, the Soviet Union was from the world. By the time we left high school the Moscow we had known was as much a memory as what had once seemed so magical between us. I wondered, did my old host student miss his gone world? Was there a spell more powerful than memory? With each semester I spent away from her, my sense of what we might have had only grew stronger. Our first summer back from college found me creeping to her mother’s doorstep to leave a pre-dawn bouquet; or holding hands beside her in a theater, aware of nothing but the roving of her thumb; or stroking her hair, shower-damp there in my lap; or simply wanting to kiss her, and failing, the moment always slipping away before I could make it real.
Alyonushka. In my mind I had begun to call her the name of the maiden in so many Russian fairy tales. Her elfin ears, her flaxen hair, the softness of her pale skin: Alyonushka. Which would have made me Ivan. Ivan the fool.
In the real world I dated, graduated, got married, divorced. Single, sad, I wanted suddenly to see Sue. We were both living in New York. She met me on the Lower East Side. “Why did you get married?” she said. In my mind the refrain echoed: It should have been you.
It echoed through the next decade of my dating. Every few months I would find a new woman; a few months later I would find her lacking. In between, I wooed Sue — breakfasts at Balthazar, matinees at MOMA — our relationship caught between friendship and courting, half fairy tale (how easily we slipped into roles shaped since childhood, how magical to stand on a street corner in Manhattan at midnight feeling that) and half reality: we’d break apart, she’d cross to her bike, I’d know we wouldn’t meet again for months. If we had, we would have had to choose — move ahead, or stop — and either way, I’d become sure, would mean the end. How many women had I hoped to fall for only to have the hope fall away first? How many had I left? Who could compare with 20 years of memories, a story I’d been telling myself since seventh grade?
The first time that I lay eyes on Jen, I thought, in the quiet of my caught breath, They do make women like that. By which I meant — OK — her legs (she was wearing shorts, walking off into a field), but also that those legs were here, in the Vermont hills, at a writer’s conference composed of people with whom I already shared a passion. Over the next 12 days I’d find I also meant the heat she brought to her own writing, her wisdom about others’ work, the spark she’d shoot through me each time she caught my gaze. I meant the way that, when we were apart, my eyes would skim the distance for her shape. Together, I could feel the quiet steadiness inside her steadying me. Making love felt like we were finding parts of ourselves that, till then, we had not known were missing. One night, holding her in a star-flooded field, a bonfire flickering far off, I knew what I had meant was this: that she could exist outside a fairy tale, for real, with me. “And you?” she whispered. “What are you going to do with this?”
I went back to Russia. I know I went to research the novel I was writing, one begun before I’d ever met Jen, but I also know part of me was going back because of Sue. For a year, Jen and I had left things open — we lived on opposite coasts; she was separating from her husband; I was unsure I could commit — but each time we’d get together I’d feel the idea of what could be, so deep inside me for so long, being replaced by the reality of what was. A few weeks before my flight I saw Sue again. Inside her sleek, stylish apartment, I kept wondering if this was the home of the woman I was meant to live with, remembering Jen’s creek-valley cabin — the wood-stove scent and soft sheepskins so immediately right — and I could feel it: all the years between Sue and me buckling beneath the few weeks Jen and I had spent together. It was the first time that had happened. And it scared me.
In Moscow I found Red Square flanked by flashy billboards, swarmed with summer tourists. In once-was-Leningrad, I stopped mid-bridge, stared into a canal: How bright the reflections of the buildings had been then; how washed out now beneath their gaudy banners. In Petrozavodsk, our old host city, I stood on the strand of the sea-size lake, gazing at the far shore, as if I might still glimpse a flash of golden hair. And there — across the waves, deep in the woods — I found her. Long flaxen locks, soft pale skin. Sometime after our glances beneath the cafeteria’s fluorescent lights, during our hours wandering muddy streets beside her drunken pals, or while she led me up the clanging stairs into the apartment she and her mother shared, lay back on the couch, pulled me down, whispered what she wanted, I had to face it: here was Alyonushka at last beneath me and I was wishing it was Jen instead, unwilling to do something I knew would hurt the woman I’d come to love. Also, I couldn’t find the condoms. I searched for them almost angrily, desperately, then stopped. Stood up. Told her I was sorry.
Though it didn’t hurt to say the words the way it would later that summer when, back in the States, I broke things off with Jen. It didn’t make me hate myself the way Jen’s sobbing did. It didn’t cramp my heart with the knowledge that I was making a horrible mistake.
See me then, too soon after, standing on a rooftop on the Lower East Side, Sue in my arms. It is the end of summer and she is also newly single, and we have shared some wine this first night together since I returned from Russia, and all around us the city’s lights are still as the stars that long ago night when, on that football field, I had failed to kiss her, and it has come again: another moment upon which our path is balanced. She’s facing away, feeling me waiting. The lights stay still. Stay still. She turns.
How does a kiss live up to 20 years of this? In its sweet sadness I could feel the entire history of our friendship. It was a deeply friendly kiss. And, in its way, miraculous. For where else but in a fable does such a simple thing bring clarity? All the six flights down, I felt that sadness, knew it was the mourning of our myth, just as I knew it had been a myth of my own making. For what are memories but personal mythology? How can we help but string them together into a tale? When I try to recall the Kremlin that distant dawn, I’m not even sure that it was snowing. I doubt my memory of bells. I only know this: the sweetness in that kiss was Sue caring enough about us to stick with me through all of it.
Now, when we meet in New York, there is an ease between us, a closeness that comes from our shared history stripped of the wish to make it anything else. It is always so good to see her. Though I can’t help hearing the echo still: It should have been like this.
How wondrous that now it is. Some days, waking to the burbling of the creek, watching the mist lift around the mossy oaks, it feels as if I am living in a fairy tale. But my wife, lying beside me, is real. I don’t have a nickname for her; I don’t need one; I just call her Jen. Though sometimes she asks me to talk to her in Russian. She thinks it’s sexy, so I oblige. I never know what to say, except that I love her. Ya lyublyu tebya, I tell her, over and over again. Ya lyublyu tebya.