A Very Convenient Affair
by Maria Kontak
She wasn’t laughing, nor was anyone else in the room. Her voice was layered in that tender type of pain before it knows real pain as she listed my lapses. She pressed her hand to her temples as if she were trying to brake a migraine and the migraine transmorphed into a husky communal growl that came from the top tier where the football players sat.
What seemed a granite block was coming alive under the grunts and groans, and I feared for the pillars and plaster angels just behind the massive shoulders — one wrong twitch. They were less than a foot away and the space seemed to contract. The rare opportunity to teach in this auditorium risked being crushed, and the student body sat in indifferent silence to my fears, listening to a classmate who was by now on the verge of tears.
My gaze fastened on the top tier and clung there, maybe because they were big, so big in fact, that they had helped me pin down my tenure before my time, thanks to our football-crazed university. And now they were gearing up.
The girl rocked back and forth on the balls of her feet. “I’m more interested in Natasha and living life. Flinging herself at it, right or wrong. Rejecting what is false, making mistakes. Trying to get it right. And living, not lining up in some frozen military salute to die. Why do we have to waste time with generals when we have Natasha and Mariya? Even Sonya,” she squealed.
“And what about the guys that don’t fight? That don’t get swallowed up by some xenophobic Russian attitude towards Europe?” A small male voice slid onto her squeal.
“Or the sexist tone of the book? Is he — Tolstoy — or isn’t he sexist? How about that?” Countered another voice, also male from behind the small voice.
“The sexism is boring, but what about the right to choose? And feminism? Does Tolstoy let his characters really choose? Or does he lock them in some frozen historic wasteland?” Seconded, but not adjourned.
“Freedom of choice and no generals!” came next.
“Absolutely, no more general talk.” The cacophony of youth’s yearnings quickly filled the hallowed auditorium.
I expected to hear chanting next, something like “Down with generals. We want Natasha. We love Andrei. Give us Pierre.” The catalogue of Tolstoy’s non-troops and the comic chanting would be led by the troupe in the top tier, the sort of thing that had happened during my own college years. But it wasn’t a comic scene that erupted with the gentle force of a mother’s lullaby in my internal ear.
“Sonya, Sonya, dochka moya, Sonechka.”
In a graceful lunge, like ones I had seen on the practice field where she led victory cheers, the ranting girl called it quits, and red-faced, sat down and Mariya Petrovna’s lullaby to her younger daughter Sonya ended too.
I had never met Katya’s younger sister and if it hadn’t been for that unfortunate last month at Leninsky 17B number 43, I could have made her as dispensable as Tolstoy did his poor Sonya. A footnote in Epilog Two.
“Well... uh,” I began, my hand flying to my notes which looked blurred, or after I slipped on my glasses, merely disjointed. The chanting was followed by a silent urgency of the kind felt when a cloud is about to burst.
I paused. I owed it to them. The girl had spoken and they had concurred, and for the first time in teaching the warhorse course, I felt what Kutuzov might have felt that morning. The red-faced cheerleader waited below. The footballers waited above. And all were calling me to take the lead.
I shoved my lecture notes aside and took off my glasses, bracing myself against the podium. The room was in expectant peace now. Urgency had turned to waiting. Only the rainbow beams through the stained glass window behind the podium, behind the stage, behind my back, tickled my spine, but they too, seemed to concur, egging me on. “Go ahead,” beamed from the shiny faces. “Deliver.” Tickle, tickle.
“You’re right,” I said, addressing the exhausted girl in the front row. Her eyes were turned up towards me not so much expectantly as with that pleading type of look that finds you through a pet shop window. The senseless battle was over. It was just the final wait before she went home to live in peace. “You’re right, that is all part and parcel of Tolstoy’s message.”
A tiny part of me wanted to skip down the three shallow stairs to the heartbroken girl and hand over to her what she craved, what she had spent herself on at nine a.m. in this hall, whose multi-colored beams sadly swallowed up the rest. It was too far to reach, and I didn’t have anything in my arms for her.
Skol’ko let, skol’ko zim.
“Ultimately” — the notes lay speechless under my fingers, but they fixed the season — “you’ve given us food for thought. All of us.” Harmless and pat.
But youth doesn’t want pat and it doesn’t fear harm. And mostly, it won’t accept disappointment. All eyes were still waiting, especially those in the upper tier. Their eyes, even from the distance, looked wild against the angelic glances of the canopy behind them. They were not done with me. I must deliver. I must try. My mouth felt dry and I coughed, then one of the massive hulks broke from the granite block that he had formed with his teammates. He stood up and clapped enormous claw-like hands.
Once, twice, three times.
It was done. I was free.
Upstairs in my snug office, the sun shone brighter, unfiltered and undisturbed by colored glass and student discontent. Shadows darted between the ceiling and the floor in a gentle play of hide and seek, but the dryness in my mouth wouldn’t go away nor join in a playful game.
I angled my laptop away from the sun’s rays. Katya’s email was short and to the point. Her invitation-command could be answered with a sentence, a word, one of two from the basics of communication, which formed my livelihood. My life. And still I dawdled.
“Yes?” a soft voice, not my own, whispered in my ear. “No?”
“Kate!” I leapt up to see my colleague and best friend, “You scared the daylights out of me.”
“The door was open.”
“So are you going to Russia?” Kate said, flinging her bulky figure into a chair beside my desk. “Ouff! At last?” she said, patting her swollen belly. “Three months to go.” She took my hand and pressed it under hers against her belly and I was surprised how lifeless and hard new life felt.
“Don’t tell me you’ve hacked into my mail, Kate.”
“I didn’t have to. You’ve been sitting like a stiff for some time, don’t you know?” Both hands stayed on her stomach and she seemed to be flinching.
Kate Mackie, ‘like the knife,’ she would say when newly introduced, didn’t ask me a lot of questions about much of anything. Not whether I would go out with a friend of her husband’s. Not if I had given up on freezing my eggs ‘just in case’. Not about why I didn’t go on the Moscow trips that I organized for students at college. She wasn’t the asking type and maybe this is why she became my best friend.
Our cherished conversations were over books, for her, as she said, an escape from too much life, and for me, as she said, an escape to life. And once — I think over one too many glasses of wine, during a silly tiff over unanswerable questions of right and wrong or the justness or unjustness of Raskolnikov’s fate — I had dropped more than I had intended about that troubling last month of 1975 at Leninsky 17B number 43, the sort of confidence that ‘Kate the knife’ was unlikely to forget.
Perhaps my lapse from that drunken debate had come back to her now. “So what’s it gonna be? Yes or No?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Honestly, Kate, I don’t know.”
“Well, do you want to go?” she said, angling her full face so that I could not help but look her straight in the eye. “Or maybe it’s better answered if you don’t want to go.”
It was strange but this little twist of logic from Kate’s lips had the reverse effect of spinning me backward not forward to a morning twenty-five years ago. I could see it as clearly as if it were right there reflected in Kate’s hazel eyes. Me and Mariya Petrovna out on a walk, and her head tilted so far back that it might snap off with the crunch of her next footfall.
“Look up, look up at the sky,” she said. “Always look up at the sky when you walk, Ellie.”
Then she told me why, and I repeated Mariya Petrovna’s story to her as it had been told to me.
Once, during the hardest winter of Russia’s Civil War, when nothing could be had for the big bills of paper money and Russians in the cities dropped like flies, Mariya Petrovna had been walking along a deserted Moscow street cursing the God she had long ceased to believe in. That whole walk she couldn’t keep her eyes off the sky, possibly a hangover from nursery days when she had been fed milk alongside a smiling God who watched over her nonstop from his perch high up beyond the clouds in the sky.
Mariya Petrovna had had a devout peasant nurse who had taught her many rituals and this one survived. While she looked and cursed, Mariya Petrovna stumbled on something beneath her feet under the crunchy snow. The thing glistened with the golden sun, but when Mariya Petrovna bent down, she had a sagging feeling at her heart that whatever it was would vanish, just as had happened to the kingfisher in her nurse’s tale.
Her fingers closed on the tuft of snow and flecks of it quickly gave way from the warmth of her palm. But the thing had not vanished. At the core of the clump of petrified snow shone something hard and round, and as she yanked it out, she saw a large gold coin.
“Maybe there’s your answer,” Kate said, when I had finished. “If Mariya Petrovna could save herself and her family with a coin that she found under her feet by looking up.” Kate paused and then spoke almost as if she were asking me a favor. “Why can’t you try to find that same street?” Then she added thoughtfully, “You have a golden opportunity in this Moscow invitation, a very convenient affair, I’d say.”
* * *
To be continued...
Copyright © 2012 by Maria Kontak