Post Road Magazine #28


Jonathan Wilson

In February 1975, a week or so before my 25th birthday, I accompanied my girlfriend Chiara Elefterides on a trip from England to Russia: Londoners both, we had been living together for almost three years in the village of Wivenhoe near its estuary, far from the city and the disapproving glare of our respective parents. Chiara was a graduate student at the nearby University of Essex, while I, ambitious and delusional, believed that I was a poet. Our workman's cottage featured no bathroom, a decidedly unpoetic outside toilet, and walls so thin that the neighbors' voices came through no softer than our own. The wife could be harsh. "Pick, pick pick," we heard her yell at her husband as we sat down to eat, "You stick your finger so far up your nose that you're gonna pick your bloody guts out one of these days."

In order to cover the five pounds a month rent due for our luxurious accommodation, I worked as a general dogsbody at The Station Inn, the pub next door, where I piled crates of beer, worked the pumps, swept the floor. Chiara had higher things on her mind: Dostoyevsky and the Russian Orthodox Church. The blue candlewick counterpane on our bed was weighted down with her books, works by obscure (to me) Russian saints and philosophers, Tikhon of Zadonsk and Vladimir Solovyov among them. She fell asleep reading and woke, as I did, always at 4 a.m. when the express from Colchester jolted into the station over the street, like the train carrying Strelnikov in Dr. Zhivago, all lights, smoke, and screeches. That train did a lot for our sex life.

Chiara thought, like so many before her, that marriage was a prison, a view perhaps augmented by close study of her own parents who had divorced when she was twelve. After three years, even though she tormented me, or perhaps because she did, I was ready to settle down. I was part Vronsky and part Gustav von Aschenbach, in pursuit of Tadzio, the tears running in rivulets down my painted face. Chiara was a dark-eyed, dark haired beauty, with a tight body and a punkish look. Unlike most of her contemporaries, she had no interest in hippie stuff; it was all black leather and zips. Lots of men desired her and were unafraid to approach. Some, professors mainly, thought they had a right to bed her as a kind of droit de seigneur. A guy from the English department with a red goatee, a high powered anthropologist who had just returned from Brazil, for example, and, of course, all the Russianists, men and women. Chiara never failed to let me know whom she found attractive and whom less so. She wanted to give me a lesson in freedom and she had nothing but disdain for jealousy. "Are you crying?" she once asked me during a phone call from hell in which she had described in detail the recent advances of a senior member of the faculty twice her age. "I'd never fuck him," she said, and when I'd replied, "I hope not," she'd added, "I'm not attracted to him at all." A pause. "My god you are crying. Well, that I really can't stand." And down went the phone.

The invitation to Moscow came out of the blue. Chiara's official supervisor, Angela Strug, had been away for months in the Soviet Union doing nobody knew quite what. In those days the Iron Curtain was still clanked pretty heavily shut and communication in and out of it tended to be cryptic. In Angela's absence, Leo Burnett, a junior member of the faculty (big beard, corduroy trousers, glasses, much emphatic yearning and desire) who taught and wrote about those brilliant, tragic Russian poets, Akhmatova, Tsvetayeva and Mandelstam, had been seconded to take over duties with Chiara, but all he had managed so far was, like all the others, to make her an offer that she'd chosen to refuse. "Come," Angela had written to Chiara, "I have someone interesting for you to meet."

We booked with a group tour through Intourist, the Russian travel agency: it was almost impossible to move without an official guide in the Soviet Union unless you had special dispensation. We planned a few days in Leningrad to be followed by a train journey to Moscow, where Angela would meet us at our hotel, and we hoped, spirit us away from our minders.

I had imagined, somehow that the flight from London would take seventeen hours, all that Churchillian enigma wrapped in a pastry stuff had permeated my consciousness as distance: Australia, whose sports teams, singers and politics were a daily feature in British newspapers, seemed closer. Yet, a quick churn through cloudy winter skies and we were in Leningrad looking out from our hotel room toward the icy Neva and its moored memory of Revolution 1917, the battleship Aurora.

I had been looking forward to having sex in Russia (or anywhere, really) but Chiara had a stomachache and sent me down to the bar to see if I could procure the Soviet equivalent of Coca Cola. She thought that a carbonated drink would settle her queasiness. We had been warned not to drink the local water-the murky swamp on which Leningrad stood and back into which it was slowly sinking had somehow poisoned the wells-but Chiara's ailment seemed premature. She hadn't even brushed her teeth yet.

I had been anticipating a throwback atmosphere for the hotel, although just how far back I wasn't sure. Certainly the women at the bar (hookers most likely), peroxide blondes with beehive hairdos and exemplary mini-skirts, were predictably retro, but to my surprise the men, in expensive suits, shirts, ties and shoes, with well-groomed hair and bright, scrubbed faces, looked as if they had stepped out of a high end prime time American soap opera. The reason for this, it turned out, is that they were American. Before I even had time to buy the soda, I was bear hugged by a friendly giant, a tipsy Jack Nicklaus lookalike who offered to buy me a drink then let me know that he was part of a delegation of small town U.S. mayors that, puckishly, had decided to hold their annual conference in the Communist stronghold. "Comrade," he said, "any time you want to visit Manhattan Beach we'll be glad to have you." "I'd love to come to New York," I said. The beach was in California.

While the mayors were knocking back vodka, preparing to fuck the hookers and have their pictures secretly taken by the KGB, I returned to our room with a bottle of "nature identical" soda water. Chiara wasn't there. She had a history of disappearance: sometimes she'd take off for days, returning without explanation or apology but usually in high spirits. If I asked her where she'd been, she would say, "I was busy," and then kiss me so sweetly that I gave up on my resentment. Why did I stay? I was enchanted by her beauty, in awe of her persuasive rationalizations (she had a brilliant mind), unhinged by her megawatt smile, and so on. When she was with you, she donated her full attention (it was a gift), especially in bed, but when it was time to move on, she moved-if you reached out to stop or delay her all you grasped was airy nothing.

For three days, we wandered after our guide through grey air and snowflakes in the direction of gold domes, churches of spilt blood, palaces, and the landmark homes of great and approved Russian writers. On the day that we were to depart for Moscow, the morning hours were designated as "free time." You could not purchase a map of Leningrad, nor a guide to its transport system, but Chiara persuaded Sveta, our cheerful Intourist guide, to help her make a pilgrimage to Dostoyevsky's tomb in the Tivkin cemetery. We went alone. The grave, when we arrived, turned out to be a not too impressive bust of the writer fronting a plinth headed by a large cross. Dostoyevsky was fenced off by wrought iron, there were no flowers, this was not Jim Morrison at Père Lachaise, and the bare branches of the surrounding trees advanced our sense of gloomy isolation. Then a boy appeared in a long coat and floppy eared fur hat. He addressed us in English. He said his name was Dmitry and that he liked Pink Floyd. He asked if when we got back to England we would send him some LPs. Chiara was silent. I said we would do as he asked. He gave me his address and then he left. Chiara stood for a long time in front of the tomb. She was, I thought, quite capable of overwhelming stones and trees with desire and it wouldn't have surprised me at all if Dostoyevsky's likeness had asked her what she was doing that night.

We were late getting back to the hotel and Sveta, who in the space of twenty-four hours appeared to have plagiarized both Chiara's hairstyle and her manner of dress, was angry with us. As punishment she withheld the sandwiches that had been distributed to our fellow travelers to sustain them during the seven-hour train ride to Moscow. Once we were in our carriage (we hadn't been that late) a kind-hearted American couple tried to slip us some of their bread and cheese but Sveta spotted the transaction in progress and intervened. This was our gulag experience.

Angela in a fur coat, her long white hair untrammeled, was on the platform to meet us. Sveta did not want to give her prisoners up, but fortunately her jurisdiction ended in Moscow and before the new guide could come to replace her, we were down in the Metro, that marvelous chandeliered Soviet tribute to the worker's state, the Winter Palace for commuters. "We'll go to your hotel later," Angela said, "We have an invitation for dinner."

We traveled on the Zamoskvoretskaya line to Dinamo station whose white and gray marble tiled walls were interspersed with sport-themed bas-reliefs: a javelin thrower, a hurdler, a boxer. I was thrilled to be there. I knew that when we emerged onto Leningradsky Avenue I would see the great football stadium, home to Moscow Dynamo, where the world's greatest goalkeeper, Lev Yashin, had once stood between the sticks to parry and punch with his massive hands. I was goalkeeper myself and knew well the magnificent solitude of that position. Neither Chiara nor Angela had any interest in football; their concentration was elsewhere, on Nabokov's haughtiness, or Bunin's dark avenues, or the poet whose lover in waiting wanted her to describe how she kissed and how men kissed her.

We crossed tramlines under darkening skies, passed a line of men and women queuing to buy kvass, and arrived outside a high-rise apartment block. Our host for the evening, Angela had told us as we emerged from the Metro, would be Zhenia Levitin, an old friend of hers who worked for the Pushkin Museum of Fine Art. A specialist on Rembrandt, he had published a number of articles in journals, and introductions to books. Chiara pretended to be interested but I had a feeling that she couldn't have cared less. She was an idea person and old-style scholarship left her cold. As for me, my obsession was Chiara; it was pathetic, but that's how it was. All my poems were about her. She was happy with that, although once she had become enraged when I had written a few lines from her point of view, as if she had spoken them. "You know nothing about me," she'd yelled, "Do not write through me ever again." On the other hand if I told her I was working on something new, she inevitably asked, sunnily and without shame, "Is it about me?" She wanted to inspire, entice, seduce, and then, with her lover on his knees as men adore god at the altar, vanish.

We rose up several floors via a rickety old elevator and emerged into a narrow, dimly lit corridor. Zhenia greeted us at his door, a small man with a solemn look, his large, slightly bulging, intense eyes behind black-framed glasses. In his tiny kitchen he served us chicken and bread, then opened a bottle of wine. He went about his business of hospitality in a manner that was almost stern. I did not participate, of course, in the Russian conversation, but afterwards I learned that Zhenia had described how he had recently been refused an exit visa to visit Yugoslavia on the grounds that (a) he was a Jew, (b) he was not married, (c) he was not a member of the Communist party-though whether these were the reasons officially given (to the extent that anything in those days was distinctly "official" in the Soviet Union), or he just guessed that they were the operative reasons, Angela did not know. It was, I learned, a miserable fact of life for Zhenia that he could not go abroad. I don't know what Angela had told him about me, but at one point when the conversation ebbed he stared hard at me and then asked, in English, if I had ever visited Israel. "Yes," I replied, "I had," but before our conversation could progress, he stopped it short, nervous perhaps about the infamous listening devices in Soviet apartments.

Zhenia never smiled once throughout the evening, but he sang. At the end of our meal he began, slowly and firmly, a song that seemed to have many verses and which he sang to the end very solemnly.

That night, in bed at the Hotel Intourist, Chiara's beautiful brown eyes closed to the world, her gold-standard breasts peeking out from under the sheet, I whispered that I loved her and she sleepily responded, "thank you." On the first night we had slept together, she had told me with great certainty, "You will never get what you want from me." It was true, I never had, if what I wanted was to feel something like possession. Chiara was of the opinion that human beings were by and large unknowable to one another, and that her own intelligent mystery was more opaque than most. She was a puzzle. In all the time we had been together ,she had never once bought me a gift; she believed that presents, although she enjoyed receiving them, were manipulations, demands for reciprocation. Once, in a moment of assertion, I had asked her to give me something for my birthday. "What do you want?" she said. "Anything." "O.K," she replied. But then I instantly backtracked. "You won't do it, forget I asked." "How do you know?" "Because I know you." This last, like the poem I had written in her voice, sent her into a fury. I knew five words in Russian, and one was "Dasvedanya"-goodbye. I told Chiara that if she ever wrote a memoir, she should call it "You Can't Know Me-Dasvedanya." She laughed, but it was laughter in the dark.

In Moscow, we saw jaundiced Lenin in his mausoleum and visited the department store GUM, where Libby, one of the American women on our tour, described the bra counter with its unadorned, uniform display of white B-D cups as "like the Himalayas."

On our last evening, when the cold felt like fifteen pound lead weights on our heads and we regretted not having splurged on fur hats in one of the tourist Berioszka shops, Angela brought Chiara and me to dinner with Yevgeny Borisovich, the son of the great novelist Boris Pasternak. This was the "interesting person" Chiara had been promised. Angela, as it turned out, had spent the last months in Moscow officially researching a book on Tolstoy but clandestinely translating Pasternak's memoir Safe Conduct into English. Yevgeny, as far was he was able, oversaw the foreign publication of his father's works. There were, it seemed, numerous obstacles to the English edition. "Pasternak," Chiara had declared, as we were leaving our hotel, "was a great poet and a terrible novelist." I didn't know enough to argue with her; for me Dr. Zhivago was only a movie in which, horribly, Omar Sharif had found and then lost the love of his life, Julie Christie, and everything had ended in tears and a hydro-electric station.

Yevgeny Pasternak, strikingly handsome, bore an uncanny resemblance to pictures that I had seen of his father. He was an engineer by trade, a branch line away from the occupations of his father and grandfather Leonid, whose portraits covered the walls of his apartment. Several guests arrived, and a samovar appeared on the table. The atmosphere was convivial, with smoking and laughter, but the conversation was exclusively in Russian and I was a silent observer. Chiara was the center of attention. Later I learned that she had offered some brilliant, incisive comments on Pasternak's descriptions of Mayakovsky's suicide in Safe Conduct (Mayakovsky, larger than life, much desired and expressively over-the-top, was her kind of guy). I was used to Chiara's magnetic appeal, but whenever I witnessed it in action, pride and envy burned in me as simultaneous low fires. I was also aware that Chiara didn't like it much if I became withdrawn or morose as the men around her preened and displayed their feathers-after all what was the point of a lover who wasn't going to be fun? Eventually, out of pity I suppose, one of the guests turned to me and asked in English who I preferred, Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, and when I replied "Dostoyevsky," he said, "Are you Jewish?" as if my answer had somehow predetermined that probability. He went on to inform me that many Russian Orthodox priests in the city were in fact converted Jews, severely restricted in the practice of their first religion and searching for a spiritual outlet. "The priests are rabbis," he said. Later in the evening, the same guest whispered to me, "This country is shit."

Feigning sickness, Chiara exempted herself from the next two days of our tour. In place of sightseeing, she visited the Lenin library while my fellow Intourists and me were introduced via coach stops to the frozen pond behind Tolstoy's Moscow home where his children and grandchildren had skated, to St. Basil's candy striped domes, and to restaurants where we flashed our foreign passports and were ushered to the front of the queue past long lines of Muscovites waiting in the cold.

Late in the evening when she returned from the library, Chiara was as sweet as could be. Books were palliatives for her racing consciousness; they softened and soothed her. She was too tired to make love so we cuddled in bed and plotted our morning escape from Ludmilla, the powerful concierge built like a Bulgarian weightlifter, who ruled our floor of the hotel as her personal fiefdom. Chiara closed her eyes and I kissed them, then she turned on her side. The curtains were not fully closed and a thin light from streetlamps illuminated a constellation of tiny birthmarks on Chiara's back. I kissed from one to the other, as if by joining them up I could somehow chart and cement our cosmic destiny together.

I lost her. Six months later, Chiara decamped to New York, ostensibly to pursue her Slavic studies in one of the great universities on the Eastern seaboard but more, I think, because she sensed that England was too small and belated for her exuberant personality: her killer smile, her combustible moods, her pre-punk punkishness were all better suited to the challenge of a city of high-rise ambition and unorthodox benedictions.

In those days, before Facebook, before Switchboard, discreet disappearance was still an option and I would not have been able to find her even if I had wanted to. If she wrote her book, it never appeared. Nothing like Chiara ever happened to me again.

Seventeen years passed. I married and divorced, and worked as an English teacher in a London comprehensive school, not happy, not unhappy, simply one of the host of conative individuals trying to get through the day, and with the help of a joint or a drink, stalk the night for its gifts until sleep.

In the spring of 1992, during the Easter vacation from school, I was in Tel Aviv on a visit. A London friend from my childhood, Gabriel Gurevitch, who had moved to Israel as a young man, was celebrating his fortieth birthday with a huge bash for himself at a restaurant in the old port of Jaffa. Because he was a warm-hearted man, generous and hospitable, father of five, and a successful lawyer, Gaby's invitation seemed like a good opportunity to revisit a country that I had not seen for twenty-five years since, as a young volunteer. I had spent a summer fixing sprinkler heads in the irrigation workshop of a kibbutz close to the Lebanese border.

On the day before the party Gaby asked me if I wanted to accompany him to visit a client of his, a recent Russian immigrant who he had been helping with certain tricky tax matters. The man had arrived in Israel a few months earlier and was living with his wife in an apartment in Gilo on the outskirts of Jerusalem near Bethlehem. The client had been crippled by a stroke back in Moscow, and was confined to a wheelchair. He couldn't walk and had use of only one hand. He had been told that physical therapy could improve his condition but he was resisting treatment.

We drove to Gilo, a journey of almost an hour. We entered the front room, and there was Zhenia. His wife, whose name it turned out, was also Zhenia (Evgenia) stood next to the wheelchair. She was considerably younger than her husband, tall with pale blue eyes, high, Slavic cheeks with a touch of pink, and straight straw blonde hair. Later I learned that in Moscow she had been first his student, then his lover. Zhenia stared at me with his bulging eyes. "Zhenia!" I said, "I can't believe it's you. We met in Moscow many years ago. You asked me about Israel." He looked at me for a long time, everyone in the room was silent, and then, with what seemed like an extraordinary effort to speak, he said, "You came with beautiful Greek girl." "Well," I replied, "Her father was Greek, her mother Italian. . . " It seemed an unnecessary correction.

The afternoon progressed, blonde Zhenia, visibly devoted to her husband, catered to his every need and then, when he grew tired, lifted him from the wheelchair in her strong arms and carried him to a day bed set up by a window in the small room. The living conditions seemed not much different to what he had known in Russia, a depressing lack of both space and furniture. Apparently their earnings came from the piecemeal selling of the few drawings from Zhenia's private collection that he had managed to bring out of Russia. The art works and their sale were what had led to the tax issues.

Zhenia was still at once strangely stern and delicate, fragile and serious as Chiara and I had known him in Moscow. Blonde Zhenia told us that Nadezhda Mandelstam-the widow of the great poet Osip Mandelstam-whom they'd visited from time to time when in Moscow-used to call him "the little sparrow." Because of the odd affinity I felt with Zhenia, as if I had known him far, far better than I did, I took it upon myself to try to persuade him to pursue a course of physical therapy. "Gaby tells me that if you did, you could really improve your health," I said. Again, he stared at me before responding, "If you continue to talk to me like that I will begin not to like you."

The sun, having reached its zenith, collapsed into the room through the shades as a tired warrior: dusty, impeached, as if it hadn't done enough. We were about to leave when Zhenia, who had fallen half-asleep on the day bed, roused himself. "She came twice," he said to me, "once with you and once a few days later with the other Englishman."

"The other Englishman?"

"Yes. But he gave himself a Russian name, 'Lev.'"



"Did he have a beard?"

Zhenia nodded, and then for the first time in the spare few hours that I had known him which bracketed all the years that had passed, he smiled.

Two years later I heard from Gaby that Zhenia had died following a massive second stroke. I wrote to Angela; long retired, she had moved to Wales to be near her daughter but still worked on her translations of Russian poetry. A fortnight passed before I received a reply. She had received notice of Zhenia's death from Moscow friends and been saddened by the news. She remembered taking the two Zhenias to a Spring Fair at Midsummer Common in Cambridge on their only visit to England in 1989. There she persuaded Zhenia to ride on the carousel. "I looked round from my horseback to see that he was safe, and there he was, bouncing up and down on one of the painted gallopers, looking as serious and focused as if in the midst of giving a lecture."

To be twenty-four and in love with a woman who everyone tries to fuck, and who snaps your heart like a breadstick, is a testing thing. To be forty-two and extract an ounce of truth from the depths of delusion is even harder. Men, if the ancients are to be believed, once went to war over beautiful women, but I was not about to track down Leo Burnett and declare an intention against him. You couldn't have Chiara other than as she was; she may never have brought me a present but she gave me the gift of hours, the attractions of her slender body under white sheets, her beautiful face on plumped pillows, kisses that made me feel as if all the churches in Moscow and Leningrad that had been turned into dull museums were about to ring their bells.

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