From Issue 2: For Irina

Peter Zhuang
Dearest Irina,
I arrived in your fair city on Thanksgiving, just short of five years after I first met Alyssa in the hallowed halls of Butler Library. Russia, of course doesn’t celebrate the traditions of North American pilgrims. And no one was celebrating my anniversary with Alyssa, especially not me.
I was welcomed at Pulkovo International airport by crisp, chilly air and a porter named Ivan. He fit every stereotype of a Russian bear that came to mind. Aside from being exceedingly courteous and filled with curiosity about America. Shockingly, no one travels out of the States on Thanksgiving. The plane had been half empty, which gave me plenty of time and space to brood about my otherwise ill fortune.
I was ushered to the outskirts of a St. Petersburg residential district where I met Anya Antonova for the first time. She was not what I expected. I’m sure you knew her better than I did – she was the most optimistic seventy-year old woman with terminal cancer I am ever likely to meet. As I recall, the first words out of her mouth were: “Well, at least Alexei sent a good-looking one.”
I arrived just in time for afternoon tea. I was offered Earl Grey on a lacquered English tea set, along with some imported biscuits. I was stunned by her flawless English, and it was to my great surprise to find among lacquered nesting dolls and traditional paintings, a portrait of Winston Churchill and posters for various James Bond movies. It was a shock to discover that she was a great aficionado of British culture, and that she had an ongoing unrequited love for Sean Connery. I later learned that her admiration was a secret one during the Soviet years, but with the open Westernization of recent years, she indulged at leisure.
I was swept into her pace right away. She did that great impression of Alexei. She told me how he had rebelled in his teenage years by studying in the US rather than in England. And how British English was unquestionably superior. She told me how it took two thousand years for the English to create the language, and it only took the Americans two hundred to butcher it. I was inclined to agree.
During the first week I got very little done. And to say very little is an overstatement. I was becoming better acquainted with local vodka than local religion. I chatted with Anya when she was feeling up to it, but it was hardly ever anything academic. Then, one morning well into the second week, I woke in my over-cushioned bed with my under-stuffed pillow to find a shadow blocking the light. I had stayed up late catching up on the news back in America.
I remember fumbling blindly on the table for my glasses, and finally setting my bleary eyes on you. I do not recall my first thoughts. I highly doubt my sleep-muddled mind had been capable of forming anything intelligible. As you know, my IQ drops to the double digits until I’ve had my first cup of coffee. You were taking down the curtains in the guest room I was occupying, and your blue dress matched the curtains. You noticed me awake and looking at you. So you smiled and said “breakfast is ready!” with a heavy accent and unfounded cheerfulness.
I watched you over the kitchen table as I attended to my bowl of kasha. You hummed to yourself as you washed the dishes. You were wearing the green apron over your dress, and your shoulder length auburn hair swayed slightly with your movements. When you turned off the faucet, you spun to face me. I was startled by the brilliance in your eyes.
You walked over and sat down across the table. You asked me, “is it good?” Our eyes met, and once again I was struck by their light green clarity. Anya had told me about you. You were her nurse, scheduled to administer the chemo-therapy treatments. She told me how you would help with the housework, out of magnanimous charity. I thought you would be a middle-aged lady who would hum Russian folk songs as you waddled around with a broom. I never expected you to be a young university graduate who owned every Taylor Swift CD. Or that you would be so damn beautiful.
I remember we did not have a chance to chat, that day, as you had another appointment later. Anya had plenty to say about you though. She told me how your parents had passed away early from cancer, and how that spurred you into the field of medicine. It seems to be the pastime of the elderly to play matchmaker. Perhaps because their own love lives have been replaced with nostalgia. Anya, as a widow for a good fifteen years was eager to see romance blossom. She dropped some less-than-subtle hints about your probable availability, but I didn’t take the bait. Not initially anyway – Alyssa had been my everything for too long. And so I continued to stew in my melancholy.
A week or so later, I had taken a six hundred word bite out of the twenty-five thousand. You arrived again for a scheduled appointment on a windy, snowy Friday. Frost caked the windows and a foot of snow was on the ground. In other words, it was just another afternoon. When I opened the door, you were drenched. It’s a tragic tendency when you enter snow-covered into an over- heated building. After setting up for Anya, you went to take a shower. You borrowed a baby blue Columbia t-shirt from me. I had never seen anyone look so good in that shirt. We chatted while you waited for your clothes to dry. You told me you were a devout Catholic, which made you far better resource material than Anya. You agreed to help me with the project, and we made our first lunch date.
The next few weeks were therapeutic. I woke up before noon regularly, and even earlier on days we would meet. You had an innate energy and cheerfulness that rubbed off on me. Seeing you was all I could think about. I felt nineteen again. Nights were spent in cafés instead of bars, with a laptop instead of shots of vodka. I had not been so productive in years. Some might have called it a rebound. I call it a much-needed breath of fresh air. Still, I was uncertain. I was years older than you, and my home was on the other side of the world. And nothing could ever completely replace Alyssa.
As my world grew brighter, Anya grew weaker. She didn’t get out of bed for days. I would read her Ian Fleming when I wasn’t working. You were visiting relatives in Moscow for a few days and I was reminded of solitude. You came for the next chemo session on the sixth of January. It was Christmas Eve (according to the Julian Calendar used by the Russian Orthodox Church), and when you discovered we hadn’t planned anything for the holiday, you insisted on showing us a proper Russian Rozhdestvo.
You insisted the hospital party you were planning going to go to was dreadful, and before long I found myself walking with you to the market. My research had revealed that Christmas takes the sideline to Easter for Russians, but regardless there was a holy supper due, a solchelnik. You honored the tradition, for the benefit of a foreign man and a dying old woman. The dinner was exquisite.
Anya retired to bed shortly after the meal, and that left us in delicious closeness. You were once again standing over the sink in that green apron, handing me dishes to dry. As we laughed and flirted with the soapy suds of dishwashing fluid, I finally began to overcome our difference in age and the nagging insecurity left by Alyssa’s departure. I remember our first shy kiss on the grey velvet couch. When you asked me to go out for the night, I was overjoyed. It was the first time you’d taken the initiative.
Your idea for a Christmas Eve date was slightly different from mine. You took me to a church, where we sat in on midnight mass. You were enthralled by the sermon and the choir. I, however, held your hand and was completely captivated by the sight of your eyes glimmering in the candlelight. As fortune would have it, midnight mass is conveniently followed by happy hour. The following events are a bit hazy. You learned that snow angels are a much wetter and colder affair than advertised. I learned that my arms and my heart could be warmed by someone other than Alyssa. The next morning I woke up with you next to me in my over cushioned bed sharing a delightfully fluffy pillow I had recently acquired. Your softness was pressed against me, and your hand caressed my chest even in the ignorance of sleep. Your lips seemed to kiss the very air that you breathed. You whispered my name and I forgot everything but you. It was a memorable Christmas for me, and I hope for you as well. And I sincerely wish that it was for Anya, since it was her last.
Anya’s condition grew critical in the following days. When you moved in shortly after Christmas to provide full time professional care, I must admit my delight was entirely selfish. I know that you felt extremely guilty spending so much time with me. But I truly believed Anya when she assured us that seeing the new happiness of a young couple was the best thing for a tired old woman. She was full of laughter in those days. She would tease us when we were together. Your energy rubbed off on her as well. And when she retired to bed we would indulge in each other’s company. I will not recount those days, because I hope that the happy blur is as deeply etched in your heart as it is in mine.
Then one morning you woke me up with tears in your eyes and tightness in your lips that tore at my heart. It took a moment to register, but I realized what had happened. It was not unexpected, but it still hit us hard. The hospital came and took Anya’s body two hours later. As we stood in cold snow watching them carry the litter to the ambulance, I reached for your hand. You pulled away. You said you couldn’t stand it that we were tangled in each other’s arms while Anya expired in the next room. You packed your bag and left with the sun at dusk. I will always regret letting you go. I called Alexei when it turned 8 am on the other side of the world. I had never heard another man cry until that moment. I felt like crying myself.
I remember the last time I saw you, at the funeral. My flight back to New York was scheduled to depart in four days. I wanted to take you with me. You would not part with your life in St. Petersburg. You told me to be realistic. I would not accept it, hopeless romantic that I am. It was a fight that we had several times since Anya’s death. I guess I pushed too hard, and you pulled away. You probably thought I was trying to replace Alyssa. Perhaps you were right.
The ceremony was an austere reminder of reality. You let me hold your hand when you cried as Alexei gave the eulogy in his booming baritone. It was warm, but it felt so small and vulnerable. You excused yourself to clean up afterwards. When I looked for you, you were gone. I called your mobile, but you wouldn’t pick up. I left messages that you didn’t respond to. A search through the white pages revealed that there were fourteen Irina Dragunova’s in St. Petersburg. Fourteen phone calls revealed that my Russian had not improved at all during my stay. I tried to get your address through the hospital, but the receptionist didn’t buy my clichéd love story, and refused to oblige. Though she did accept a free subscription to this magazine.
That morning of my flight, Alexei handed me a postcard. It was the kind you could find in any gift shop. A collage featuring tourist attractions such as the Winter Palace, St. Isaac’s Cathedral, and the Mariinsky Theater. On the back was a single word in your bubbly handwriting. With it came my very own version of St. Petersburg. I saw memories of us walking down snow-covered streets with glittering streetlights. Of lazing on the couch watching local programing with you in my arms, as hail clinked against the shutters. Of laughing over the ancient dinner table while Anya told us stories of Alex. It said Farewell.
It is a cold November in New York this year, by local standards anyway. But I have known winter, and it was truly warm. Many nights I dream of snow in a far-away place. I will not argue or plead again. I did plenty of that in our last days. But if you read this, I want you to know that winter in St. Petersburg is forever etched in my heart.
I have finished my first novel. My editor said it was the best thing I have ever written. The agents loved it. I was paid more than I could have hoped for, and was promised my fair share of royalties. It is about a Russian family exiled to Siberia, struggling to celebrate Christmas when it was outlawed during the Communist era. It comes out next Thursday, exactly one year since I met you in chilly St. Petersburg. I hope you read it someday. On the page between the title and the table of contents is a page with a single line. It reads:
For Irina.

 

Peter Zhuang is a student at Columbia University, majoring in Creative Writing. He is currently an intern at a literary agency in New York, and aspires to be a novelist. He has published a piece of poetry as well as two research papers. This will be his first publication of fiction.