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Chance Encounter


A story by Paulina Shur


As always during rush hour, passengers on the subway train were so crammed, there was hardly any room to move an elbow. The train’s abrupt stops shoved them into each other, and in order to exit, they had to thrust their way through the crowd. Such a ride could result in torn buttons, broken eggs in women's bags, or, worse, torn stockings. Stockings were so expensive, hardly any woman could afford to throw them away. If they had a run, she could mend it, which required great dexterity and time. A hole was hopeless to fix. On top of it all, some men had free rein to touch women’s private parts, especially their behinds. Women were either too embarrassed to say anything, or too practical to have any illusions about the outcome of their protests. The crowd was discontented or indifferent; the faces looked weary, fatigued.

A young woman around thirty years old was standing face to face--almost lip to lip--with a man around the same age. Feeling a little awkward by such closeness, they tried to avert their eyes from each other and suppress their smiles, but to no avail: something attracted them to one another. “It’s a chemical reaction, that’s all,” sings Cyd Charisse in Cole Porter’s Silk Stockings. Suddenly, an older man standing behind the woman touched her leg.

"Take your dirty hand off me,” the woman said angrily.

"Who wants to touch you, lady, just look at your ugly mug," the man retorted, his hand steadily moving up her leg.

The woman’s face flushed. Seeing her frustration, the young man said threateningly: "Lady said take your dirty hands off her!"

"Are you her husband, or what?" asked the “abuser,” a little startled.

"Yes, I'm her husband,” responded the young man without any hesitation. “And you just wait till we get out; I’ll give you a good beating.”

He was strong and muscular; the “abuser,” on the other hand, looked shabby and feeble; he reeked of alcohol which made it apparent he'd already had a very long “happy hour” with his boon companions. He reluctantly withdrew his hand. The woman smiled to her defender; he smiled back. They moved to the exit at the same time.

“I am Andrew Goncharov,” he introduced himself when they were outside the train.

“I'm Tanya. Tanya Ustinova. Thank you for saving me.”

“Not at all. What I'm thinking . . . We should get married first thing in the morning.” “Married?” she exclaimed, astounded by such non sequitur.

 “Yes, married. Didn’t we just tell this man that we were husband and wife? We have to

stand behind our words, don't we?”

“I guess so,” she said smiling.

“And since we're in love, it won’t be a marriage of convenience, right?”

“Right,” she said after a moment of hesitation.

“Well, then, let’s marry first thing in the morning.”

“Couldn't it be second thing in the morning?” she joked.

“Fortunately, not,” he said smiling. “I'm leaving town tomorrow at 9 AM. For a six-month geological expedition. For my work.”

“Well, since the judge's office opens at 10 AM, we’ll have to wait six months,” she said with relief. She still couldn’t tell if the whole conversation was a joke.

“I guess so,” Andrew said disappointedly. “I am afraid you'll forget all about me in six months; after all, we only met sixteen minutes ago . . . Unless . . . unless we write each other every day.”

“I like it, she said. “It will give us a chance to get better acquainted with each other.” “Oh, no!” he exclaimed. “Don’t you remember Lady Bracknell’s opinion on the

subject?” “I’m not in favor of long engagements . . . “

Tanya joined in: “They give people the opportunity of finding out each other’s character before marriage,” they finished in unison, and laughed.

Suddenly they felt connected; they felt close to each other. Of course, nobody has ever lost out by quoting “The Importance of Being Ernest.”

By talking and laughing, they reached her nine-story apartment building.     

“What's your apartment number?” Andrew asked.

“Thirteen,” Tanya answered.

“My lucky number,” he said. “I’ll write my first letter tonight, as soon as I’ve finished packing.”

“I’ll write my first letter tomorrow night,” she responded. “I want to know about your hobbies, college, friends, favorite books, movies, poets . . . “

“I’ll try. I want you to describe your feelings, emotions, thoughts, and, of course, your hobbies, college, friends, favorite books, movies, composers,” he continued their game.

“I’ll try,” she smiled.

“Till October, then,” he said. “A perfect month for our wedding. Weddings used to be in the fall, after the harvest. Our harvest will be plentiful: one hundred eighty letters from me to you, and one hundred eighty letters from you to me. Only wait for me.”

“All right,” she said. “Till October. I’ll wait for you.”

They both knew they were paraphrasing a famous war poem, and he started to recite it, jokingly:

“Wait for me, and I'll return,
Only wait for me.
Through the winter, spring, and fall,
You must wait for me.
Even if you're weary to wait,
You should wait for me.
Even if all hope is lost,

Wait, please wait for me.”


He interrupted himself, kissed her, and walked away. It surprised her how much she liked his kiss. She stood still as if trying to retain its taste. She even touched her lips, which reminded her of the old Soviet comedy, A Kiss From Mary Pickford. A man who has no luck with the ladies is kissed by the famous Hollywood star, and he is so thrilled, he circles a spot on his cheek that Mary Pickford touched.

Tanya laughed and entered her apartment building. When she came in, the kitchen table was set for dinner; her father was cutting bread.

"You're a little late," he said smiling, and quickly turned the range off. When they sat at the table, she told him about her encounter. He listened attentively, then asked for this young fellow's name.

“Andrew,” he repeated nonchalantly. "Do you really think he'd write to you every day for six months and then marry you?"

"Yes, I do," she responded, surprised by his doubts.

Then they had their usual conversation: she told him about her day at work, and he told her about his day at home. Actually, he spent most of the day standing in lines for food. Only early in the morning could one buy dairy products like milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, or eggs, so the dairy shop was his first stop. Lucky were those who had retired parents. After bringing these products home, he went to another store to buy potatoes and sauerkraut; then he stood in lines for meat, cheese, and bologna. Thank God bread wasn’t in shortage. A loaf of rye bread was the last item he bought. At 4 PM, he started making supper.

Before moving to his daughter's apartment, Peter Nikitin lived in a village with his wife, Lucy. Both were school teachers. Tanya left the house for college right after high school--she was accepted to Leningrad University. There Tanya got married, got a divorce a year later, got a job, and got a Ph.D. in biology. She and her parents stayed in touch writing letters and visiting with each other. When Peter and Lucy retired, they enjoyed free time, reading, walking, and socializing with their neighbors. When Lucy suddenly died from a heart attack, Peter’s life changed. Somehow, his free time expanded, while his interests shrank. A strange feeling started to creep up inside of him, and he knew the word for it: loneliness. He’d never imagined he’d have something in common with this old Professor from the Swedish movie Wild Strawberries that they’d seen on one of their visits to Tanya’s.

Peter and Lucy couldn’t make head or tail of it. The Professor was having dreams in which his dead wife blamed him for her own adultery and death and his son for all of his own mental and financial troubles. In one of the dreams, an unpleasant looking man informed the Professor that a jury found him guilty, and the verdict was capital punishment. Capital punishment? Death? To Lucy’s and Peter’s surprise, it was loneliness. Loneliness!? Of course, they knew, from reading newspapers and attending obligatory party meetings, that in a capitalist society man is a wolf to his fellow man. Homo homini lupus. They had an image of a pack of lonely wolves howling in their dens. What a depressing society must it be if loneliness seems worse than death. No wonder this Professor was so upset. Thank God in our society loneliness doesn’t exist: a man is a friend, comrade, and brother to his fellow man. One for all, and all for one.

All of these topics had been discussed at supper time. Tanya just said that she loved the movie and that tomorrow she was taking them to see another foreign movie, The Road, or La Strada in Italian. Peter and Lucy said enough was enough. "You go see this Fellini movie with your friends. We want to see a new Soviet comedy, Bootleggers. They laughed non-stop at the comic situations, the splendid acting of the three comedians, and their skillful use of the gags coming from the silent movies. It was a relief to watch Bootleggers after Wild Strawberries

It was only after Lucy’s death that Peter began to understand the anxiety of this Swedish Professor. It turned out that loneliness finds you no matter where you live, the Soviet Union or Sweden; that it stays with you forever and ever, becoming your friend, comrade, and brother; and that in a way, loneliness is like death: since nobody cares about your existence, you almost feel like a non-entity.

It was dead-silent in the morning when Peter awoke and didn’t have anyone to say “hi” to. It was even worse at night, with not a single sound coming from outside. Nobody cared about how well or how tired he looked. Nobody brought him chicken noodle soup or hot tea with lemon when he had a cold. Nobody was interested in his subtle feelings about the colors of fall leaves, or his thoughts about a poem that wondered if any human being is capable of truly, deeply understanding the soul of another human being. Gradually, Peter stopped shaving, cleaning, cooking, or fixing things that broke; he stopped going out at night, for fear of slipping on the ice or having a stroke or heart attack on the street--nobody would even notice he didn’t come home. He moved to one room where he slept, ate, read, and watched TV. Five months after her mother’s death, Tanya came to visit him. She was horrified: her father looked ten years older.

“Dad, pack. You are moving in with me,” she said. He stared at her for a second, then ran to pack. He threw his belongings in a suitcase pell-mell as if he were afraid she might change her mind. She noticed.

“We have time,” she said. “We won’t leave until everything is taken care of.”

Tanya lived in a tiny one-bedroom apartment. It was only through the living room adjacent to the bedroom that the kitchenette, bathroom, and small entrance hall could be reached. Father wanted to sleep in the living room, but Tanya convinced him, employing a little white lie, that it would be much more convenient for her to have the living room as her bedroom and office: sometimes she worked late at night and needed to go to the kitchen to make tea, or she had friends come over and stay late.

After Peter settled into his room, he explored the neighborhood and soon became friends with some of the neighbors, particularly retirees. When the weather was good, they played chess, checkers, or card games in a small courtyard; he also took long walks along Leningrad’s streets, canals, palaces, and plazas with columns or cathedrals. In the winter, they got together at each other's apartments, or went to the movies that were cheaper during the daytime. Of course, almost every day’s routine included standing in lines for groceries. Sometimes they went their separate ways, and sometimes one would buy bread for everybody, another one tea and jam, and yet another one meat. That saved them time and, most importantly, eased the joint pain in their legs that worsened from standing in long lines in the cold. In late afternoons, Peter cooked, set the table, and ate supper with Tanya. He couldn’t wish for a better life.

"Call no man happy until the hour of his death, for who knows what pains the gods may yet have in store for him while he lives," said King Solon in the book of Greek myths Peter was reading. The idea was worth thinking about, but apparently this B.C. guy had no concept of life’s relativity: loneliness versus companionship; cultural and economic bareness of a countryside versus the richness of a big city; a feeling that you are useful, that someone likes your company, that your life has meaning--all versus the feeling that you are a non-entity. In spite of Solon’s wise observation, he, Peter Nikitin, could call himself a happy man.

When Tanya came home from work, she quickly looked through the mail on the small round table by the entrance, pleasantly anticipating Andrew's letter. However, the mail had no letter from him. Apparently, she thought lightly, Andrew had no time to write, what with packing, taking care of everything, and saying good-bye to his friends. She was slightly disappointed, not by the absence of a letter, but by the unfulfilled promise. For her, promises were not meant to be broken. Suddenly, she realized that she too hadn’t written Andrew the promised letter. She felt embarrassed, and after dinner, sat down at her desk.

Nothing eventful had happened in the past two days, yet, her writing about small, almost imperceptible changes in nature; conversations with friends and colleagues; people she met; and a book she was reading reflected her humorous or thoughtful view on a day in life. She wrote two more letters on the following days, and then waited for Andrew's letters. There was none. Day after day, she came home from work, looked through the mail, and then went to the kitchen to eat. She wasn’t hungry, but her father was waiting. How she wished now she had her own room where she could close the door, throw herself onto the bed, and think about her situation: here she was, in love with a stranger who forgot all about her. It was that simple, yet she found it incredulous. She would understand the change of heart after a month or even a week, but not after their very first encounter, during which Andrew talked about love and marriage. The least he could do, thought Tanya, was to write just one letter, saying that he didn’t want to continue their relationship. That would be civil, polite. But he didn't write that one letter. Tanya felt hurt, insulted, even humiliated by his neglect.

“Are there any letters for me?” she asked her father, impatiently looking through the mail one day.

"I put all your mail on this table, everything," he answered, slightly surprised.

She started coming home late, wandering around, mixing with crowds, noticing young couples hurrying somewhere, or men presenting little bouquets of snowdrops to their dates. Her heart was filled with bitterness and sadness for her own lost paradise.

Finally, she decided to learn the truth. She went to the telegraph, gave a girl at the front desk the name and address of Andrew’s geological expedition, and asked to connect her. In a few minutes, she was talking to Andrew’s office manager. Tanya asked him about Andrew, hoping to hear that Andrew got ill, or was far away, in the woods, where the mail couldn't come.

“Andrew? Oh, he is doing fine. The guys work in the field all day long; then at night, they return to the base, eat dinner, sit around the fire, and sing songs. Andrew plays the guitar. Should I tell him who called?”

“Oh, no, no, thank you,” she said, and hung up.

She came home, told her father she wasn’t hungry, and went to bed. Peter tiptoed to his room and stayed there for the whole evening. In the morning, Tanya drank two cups of strong coffee and went on a long walk. It was unusually cold and windy. Struggling with the wind helped her allay her pain and anger. She didn’t know how many hours she walked across bridges and along canals, wide or narrow streets, and plazas. When she came home, she found her father sitting at the kitchen table, apparently worried about her, and a piece of paper with her friends’ names: they had been calling all day long, concerned with her sudden disappearance. She was hungry and ate everything her father cooked, to his delight. Then she called her friends and arranged to meet with them. She promised herself not to ever think of Andrew again.

On the surface, life “after Andrew” was the same as life “before Andrew.” Usually, on weekends, Tanya and her friends went backpacking to the Karelian peninsula woods--beautiful, clean woods with hiking trails, hills and meadows, rivers, lakes, and streams; there they picked berries and mushrooms, canoed and fished, and walked, hiked, and swam. It used to be a Finnish territory that the Russians invaded in 1939 and annexed in 1940, under the pretext that Russia needed a buffer zone for Leningrad, which was only 32 kilometers from the Finnish border. After War World II it became a favorite destination for backpackers. Since nobody took good care of the woods, they were slowly deteriorating. The Russians joked that their government should return the peninsula to the Finns for about ten years, and then take it back, cleaned and restored.

There were also museum exhibitions and theatre performances; movies and concerts; gatherings at someone’s apartment, with late night tea and heated discussions about every subject concerning Russian life; evenings of poetry reading in small cafes; walks in the city during the “white nights,” when sunsets were so late and sunrises so early, the skies never got dark . . . Yet, nothing excited Tanya; she didn’t even notice how the shy, soft colors of the spring turned to bright, luscious colors of the summer; everything seemed to be drab, dull, and even colorless.

Viewers of famous black-and-white movies, such as Casablanca or Brief Encounter, don't perceive them as colorless, because of the chiaroscuro effect: a gradation in hundreds of nuances of white, gray, and black; but if well-known color movies, like The Red Balloon or Chicago, were stripped of colors, then only three washed-out white, gray, and black colors would remain. The movies would not only lose their aesthetic and cinematographic qualities, but also an idea, meaning, and concept.

Stripped of color, becoming washed-out black and gray, Tanya’s world now signified the loss of joy, purpose, and meaning in her life.

Her friends felt that she was hiding something from them, and kept asking her what was wrong. Finally, she told them the whole story. They were shocked that she kept them in the dark for so long. They always shared with each other bad and good happenings, and helped each other in every way they could, not to mention listening, giving advice, and expressing compassion and empathy--just like in the movie Moscow Doesn’t Believe in Tears. “Really, why have I kept it a secret from them?” Tanya wondered. Their reaction surprised her.

 “You saw him once, for an hour, and you believed he was going to write you every day for six months, and then come back and marry you? You must be out of your mind!” (Alex)

“You think you are in love with a man? You are in love with a phantom! With a reflection in a pond! With an invention of love! You invented a romantic story, but your romantic character doesn’t exist!” (Victor)

“Thank God this guy’s got brains! He understood that you both were carried away. That’s why he didn’t start this crazy correspondence. Don’t you realize he’s done you a big favor?”  (Natasha)

“I bet you don’t even remember what he looks like, do you?” (Robert)

“Forget about him. Date some real guy, or just make love to someone. It helps.” (Alice)

“You’ve had a brief street encounter. It’s fun to flirt with a handsome guy for a few minutes. Your flirting lasted a little longer. No reason to take it so seriously.” (Laura)

“Besides, he is the scum of the earth. Not to send you a single letter! He is not worth your little finger!” (Natasha)

“Well, I’m glad we all feel the same way. Now it’s time to discuss an important issue --our next vacation.” (Sophie)

They usually took vacations in the fall, and fall was coming. They liked to take on a challenge, “test their mettle,” as Shakespeare called it, and it was decided right there, at Tanya's place, to go to the Caucasian mountains. A few weeks later, carrying heavy tents and backpacks with food, water, sleeping bags, and ropes, they were climbing up snowy peaks, going down to summery valleys, and then climbing up again to different peaks. They were rewarded with breathtaking views, a sense of youth and strength in their bodies, and a feeling of comradeship that is always enhanced during such trips. It was so joyous, at the end of the day, to cook dinner on the fire, sit around it, and eat, talk, and sing. 

They came back at the end of September. Tanya was glad to see her father; he looked at her inquisitively, as if asking: are you ok? She just smiled. She missed her work, too and got absorbed by it immediately. One morning, while eating breakfast, she heard on the radio that the rainy season was about to start: October has arrived. October! The word pierced through her heart. Six months have passed, she thought on the way to work and back, and nothing has changed, neither the intensity of her feelings nor her pain. And then she saw Andrew. She stopped and closed her eyes. It’s a mirage; I am getting ill, she thought. When she opened her eyes, she saw Andrew coming toward her, smiling. Suddenly, rage surged through her. She remembered her sleepless nights, her waiting for his letters, her lonely walks, her anguish. She tried to pass him. He gently touched her arm.

 “Tanya, have you forgotten me? I was afraid of that. It's me, Andrew. The one who provided you with exciting reading for one hundred and eighty days!”

Tanya stopped dead. She couldn't believe his mockery. “Get away from me!” she screamed. “I don't want to ever see you again!”

She quickly entered her apartment building and slammed the door. She ran upstairs as if she were afraid he'd follow her. He didn’t. She stood by her apartment door, trying to catch her breath, then went outside. It was pouring rain; she didn’t care: she was even glad the rain drops were mixing with her tears. When she approached her apartment building the next day, Andrew was there again.

“Why were you so upset yesterday? Have I hurt your feelings in my letters? If so, it was unintentional. I joke a lot.”  

The word “letters” stung her. “What letters?” She heard her voice suddenly becoming hoarse. “I didn't receive a single letter from you.”  

“It couldn't be. I wrote to you every day, as I promised. You only sent me three letters. I was absolutely thrilled, you write so well. But that was it. Just three letters in the first week. I continued writing without you ever responding.”

 “It's a lie. One letter could be lost, but one hundred eighty letters couldn’t be! You've never written anything. Go away.”

“Why would I lie? Why would I come here if I didn’t want to see you?”

“I don’t know. I am asking myself why you’ve bothered to come, after six months of silence, after having broken your promise.”

“Listen, Tanya, what if we come back to this ‘letters’ topic later, and now just take up where we left off six months ago? Aren't we in love? Shouldn't we plan the wedding?”  

“I hate you!” she screamed. “Leave me alone! I don't ever want to see you again. If you come back, I'll call the police!”  

He went pale; his lips trembled. He looked at Tanya with despair and disbelief, then walked away. Tanya would always remember that look.

When she came home, she was shivering. Her father asked her if she felt ill. She told him about Andrew and went to bed. She could hardly breathe; she felt she was suffocating; she tried to convince herself that she hated Andrew, but deep inside she knew the truth.

She called her friends and asked them to come over. When tea was served, Tanya told them about Andrew. Her friends’ reaction shocked her.

 “I don’t believe you! Are you out of your mind? He's come back! What else do you need?” (Sophie)

“He didn't forget you. He was thinking about you for six months after only meeting you once! He truly loves you!” (Alex)

“Thank your lucky stars, and don’t push your luck!” (Alice)

“But what about the letters?” (Tanya)

“Who cares about these damned letters, you fool! Run to him. Tell him you love him. Get married. Have a child. Have a family!” (Laura)

 “And then hire a detective to find out all about these letters.” (Victor)

“How could you sit here and coldly talk about it? It’s obvious you love him! Shouldn’t you follow your feelings? Your heart?” (Sophie)

“No,” said Tanya firmly. “You don't understand what these letters meant to both of us. Some of you had been dating for years, and still couldn't decide if you should marry each other. Andrew and I didn’t date. Those letters were in lieu of our dating. They were our outings together; going to the movies; discussing new books; meeting each other's friends; simply talking. Now it's all lost. He broke his promise, and he lied to me. If he’d just told me that he didn’t write, because he was lazy, or he felt he couldn’t express himself in the letters, I’d understand. But he didn’t tell the truth. He is a liar!” She broke into uncontrollable sobbing.

“You are making the biggest mistake in your life,” said Laura.

“An irrevocable mistake,” added Robert.

“God is giving you a life-time chance. Many people don't even get one. You have. If you lose it, you’ll lose it forever,” said Natasha.

After that evening, the darkness of the season became Tanya. Instead of going out with her friends, she started going to the movies alone. She’d always sit in the last row. Nobody could see her face or her tears. She didn’t mind watching awkwardly optimistic, practically devoid of conflict Soviet movies where the good was fighting with the best, and both wanted only one thing: to make life in the Soviet Union even better than it had been. 

Tanya remembered reading somewhere that during the Great Depression unemployed Americans spent their days at the movies, and the more care-free these movies had been, the better distraction they provided. Impeccably dressed and groomed, ebullient Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced heavenly and sang enchantingly about the lightness of life: if you fall, all you have to do is “pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again”; happiness and bliss replace troubles and woes once you start dancing with your girl “cheek to cheek”; and when you are invited to a party, you could always find in your closet the best quality “top hat, white tie and tails.” Tanya wished she could see these movies--they’d have provided a great distraction for her, too--but they haven’t been shown to the Soviet audiences.

Soviet people have been taught that there, in America, life is gloomy, drab, and hopeless; the rich exploit the poor; the poor go on strikes or die from starvation. Light, charming, joyful American musicals--Top Hat, Swing Time, or Shall We Dance, amongst many--contradicted this image.

Soviet people have also been taught that everything made in the Soviet Union is the best in the world, including music, dance, and film. But who could compete with Michael Kidd’s creation of an American dance idiom--a blend of ballet, acrobatics, folk, jazz, and modern dance--in Guys and Dolls, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, or The Band Wagon; with Agnes de Mille’s invention of folk-dance and frontier life idioms in Oklahoma!; or with Jerome Robbins’ unforgettable street fight idioms in West Side Story? That’s entertainment! Yes, one would readily forget trials and tribulations of life while watching Astaire’s and Rogers’s singing “You like potato and I like potahto” and then roller-skating; Julie Andrews’s singing “Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens” and then dancing with the children; or Gene Kelly’s “singin’ and dancing in the rain” and then hanging from the lamp post.

No, Soviet authorities couldn’t allow their people to see these fireworks of talent coming from America.   

While Tanya has been spending her free time at the movies, her friends were getting married, divorced, or remarried; some female friends found themselves as single mothers. They had a tough life: lack of money, sleep deprivation, and children’s illnesses brought never-ending exhaustion and sometimes even depression. Tanya started to spend less time at the movies and more time helping her friends.

One morning, when she came into the kitchen to eat breakfast, she found no food on the table; nor was the radio turned on. She rushed to her father’s bedroom only to find him dead. He died peacefully in his sleep. After the funeral, Tanya’s friends, neighbors, and some of her colleagues came to her place for a “remembering” meal: they ate supper and talked about her father. Laura stayed with Tanya overnight. The following nights, Tanya’s other friends took turns staying with her, until she told them she was fine to stay by herself. It felt strange to be alone: she missed her father and his companionship. Now she didn’t have a single relative in the world. Thank God her friends were like her extended family.

A week after the funeral, on Saturday morning, Tanya decided to sort through her father’s belongings. She wanted to keep some of his letters and photographs. She also wanted to move back to the bedroom. While emptying his drawers, she discovered that one was locked. She searched for a key for a while and finally found it in her father’s jacket. She couldn’t imagine what he was hiding. Slightly intrigued, she opened the drawer. In it laid a few thick packs of unopened envelopes. She looked at the top one and gasped: it was a letter from Andrew. At that instant, she knew what the rest of the packs contained. She sat down on the floor, remaining motionless, almost frozen at the sheer horror of what lay before her.

At last, she opened the first letter. It was the letter Andrew wrote on the evening they met. He described how he fell in love with her during the subway ride and how he was looking forward to reading hers and writing his own letters. He wrote the second letter on the train and the third one upon arrival at the base. His humorous responses to her three letters made her laugh; in all others, he talked about his work, college, friends, hobbies, and the movies and poets he loved; many letters were his reflections on or observations about people, nature, and different events. She read them all day and all night, and then the following day.

She was deeply absorbed by Andrew’s world and captivated by his personality shining through the letters; yet she couldn’t help thinking that none of the letters was opened by her father, and the question of why he had been hiding these unopened letters was painfully going through her mind. Finally, she read the last letter, which was the most joyful of all: Andrew was coming back, hoping that Tanya had been waiting for him. “Wait for me, and I’ll return,” he reminded her of their conversation. Underneath the letter lay a note from her father. The note was short. Father apologized for hiding the letters, but explained he had no choice. The apartment was too small for three people. Suppose Tanya and Andrew exchanged their two apartments for a bigger one. Still, who could give Peter a guarantee that they would want him to stay? After all, Andrew is a stranger to him; why should he care about the old man? Two’s company, three’s a crowd. Consequently, there could be a possibility that he, Peter, would have to move back to his house in the countryside. The notion of it scared him to death. He’d already survived loneliness; he wouldn’t be able to go through it again. Now that he was dead, Tanya knew that Andrew had written to her; now she could marry him.

Tanya read his note a few times, trying to take in its essence. While living with her, talking to her, looking in her eye, her father was quietly stealing a letter a day; for one hundred and eighty days, he had watched her agony, tears, and misery; for almost three more years after Andrew’s return, he had witnessed her despair and depression, her joyless life. No good deed goes unpunished; Tanya recalled bitterly this French proverb, thinking that her father was able to do that only because she moved him into her apartment. If only he’d asked her what would happen to him after her marriage, she’d have answered him truthfully, without any hesitation, that he would have always lived with them no matter what. She wouldn't dream of leaving him alone; she still remembered what he looked like when she visited him five months after her mother's death. But her father hadn’t asked her. With no shame or second thought, he cruelly and cold-heartedly destroyed her chance for happiness. Suddenly, she was choked with hatred toward him. She violently threw into the trash all of his belongings, including his letters and photographs, and left the empty room. Then she found Andrew's home address, and the next day, after work, waited for him by the entrance to his apartment building. She saw him from far away and went toward him. He walked slowly, listlessly, with his chin down. When he saw her, he stopped, stupefied. She told him what had happened. He responded that he was married and had a son, Nick; that he got married out of loneliness and despair; and that he still loved her. He smiled and left; he went home to his wife and his son.

Tanya cried all night; in the morning she called in sick, and stayed home. She could hardly talk when some of her colleagues called her to inquire if she needed anything. About an hour after her usual return from work, the door bell rang. She opened the door and saw Andrew stand there, with a suitcase. The night before, he told his wife, Anna, that he was leaving her. He told her he loved another woman. He apologized. Anna was dumbfounded at first. Then she said she didn’t care for his ridiculous story; she didn’t even care for his love.

“Nick needs a father!” she said. “I don’t want to be a single mother, I won’t survive! If you move out, you'll never see your son again. Never! He shouldn’t be around a madman!”

Anna thought that the threat would stop him; it didn't. Andrew couldn’t lose the one chance life was giving him: to live with a woman he loved.

And that’s how Andrew and Tanya started their life together. It wasn’t an easy life. Andrew missed his son terribly; he felt guilty at deceiving Anna into marrying him; his colleagues and even close friends were shocked by his decision to leave his family. Tanya felt for Andrew, as if she were Hamlet’s flute: her heart bled for him when he was sad; when he was joyful, she rejoiced with him. Yet, in spite of their pains and regrets, they cherished every moment spent together. They felt they wasted so much time having lived without each other, they rarely invited friends over or accepted their friends’ invitations. Tanya sensed that Andrew’s pain would lessen if they had a child, but she couldn’t get pregnant. Her friends comforted her saying she shouldn’t think about it, and it would come; it takes time, be patient; don’t stress out about it, stress may hinder it from happening.

Seven months into their life together, one early morning, Andrew complained about chest pain. Tanya called the ambulance. By the time it came, Andrew was dead. He had died from a heart attack.

Anna didn't come to the funeral. Those who did parted right after it. Tanya didn’t invite anybody over: it was too painful for her to have yet another “remembering” meal so soon after the first one. She wanted to be alone anyway.

Since Andrew’s death, she had one agonizing, tormenting thought: was it her fault? Maybe his heart attack was hereditary, or the result of plaque in his arteries; then if I weren’t heartless, foolish, and stubborn, Andrew and I could’ve had a life together--a short but happy life. We could’ve had a child, our own child. We could’ve lived without any guilt, pain, or sadness. But maybe his heart simply couldn’t bear so much pain: he loved me, but couldn’t be with me; he lived with me, but couldn’t see his son; he also felt remorse for Anna. I am guilty. I am guilty if his death was imminent, and I am guilty if his death was caused by too much heartache.

Her agony was added to by a terrible sense of loneliness which brought recollections of two European movies she’d seen on one of her parents’ visits.

In Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, old Professor Isak Borg revisits the places of his childhood and youth and recalls his past through day-dreams and nightmares. Again and again he is forced to watch the most disturbing, tormenting moments of his life-- his fiancée’s announcement that she is going to marry his brother, or his wife's adultery that she blames on his heartlessness and indifference. In one of his dreams, Isak is told that he received punishment for his sins.

“And what is it?” he asks.

“Loneliness,” is the answer.

“Loneliness,” repeats Isak as if an axe had already fallen on his head.

Many Russians thought the movie was a masterpiece, but they were amused by Isak’s punishment.

 “Give me this punishment any time!”

“Sure we don’t have loneliness! We’re always squished in the crowd running to the stores at the end of each month, hoping to buy a bath towel, tea kettle, or pair of boots!”

“Packed like sardines in a grocery store, just to buy a little fruit for your child!”

“The whole life spent standing in lines for groceries!”

“No privacy anywhere, your whole life is on display!”

“Surrounded by neighbors gossiping about what you eat--what you buy--how you live--”  

“By women fighting with each other in the kitchen--”

“By wives fighting with their drunken husbands--”

“Sharing one toilet with six other families, and always standing in line for it--”

“Standing in another line to use a range in the kitchen--”

“Not having a bathtub or even a shower--”

Wasting half of your Saturday going to a communal bathhouse and standing in yet another line to wash yourself and your children amongst hundreds of naked strangers--”

“Instead you could live in your own apartment, just with your family--”

“With no line for the bathroom--”

“Taking a lonely shower every day--” 

“A lonely cook in your own kitchen, using all four ranges--and an oven!”   

“Oh God, please punish me with loneliness, too!”

Yet, even though Isak didn’t have to stand in lines or share his apartment with six other families, he still needed love and companionship. That’s why so gratifying was the end of his journey: he found in himself the ability to better understand his past that shed light on his present and tried to change his relationship with his son, daughter-in-law, and housekeeper. In turn, they let him know that they loved him and cared for him. It seemed that Isak was forgiven for his sins and that he wouldn’t have dreams about loneliness anymore. 

Not so in Fellini’s La Strada, where ruthless Zampano, a circus’ chain breaker, leaves his ill, child-like partner Gelsomina alone in the middle of nowhere, because he doesn't want to take care of her. A few years pass by, and one day, Zampano runs into a young woman who sings a melody Gelsomina used to play on the trumpet. He learns that Gelsomina had been found on the beach, lived at this woman’s house for a short time, and died. Suddenly, a sense of loss and loneliness overpowers Zampano. He realizes that Gelsomina was the only person in the world who cared about him. He gets drunk and wanders to the beach. He looks at the sea, skies, then around: he is alone in the world. He throws himself on the sand, almost burying his head and hands, and sobs; the sound of waves in the dark only adds to his sense of loneliness. He'll be alone forever and ever.

Now Tanya felt that she too was being punished for her cruelty and insensibility, and the punishment was a guilty conscience and loneliness. She wanted to be forgiven, like Isak Borg, but there wasn’t anyone to forgive her. She threw herself to the bed, buried her head in the pillow, and sobbed.

She developed insomnia. Sleeping pills helped her fall asleep, but shortly after she would wake up, screaming, panting, or crying. In her sleep, she always had dreams: her father hiding Andrew’s letters; Andrew stretching his hands toward her and pleading for her to listen to him; Andrew falling dead by the entrance to her apartment building; the man from Wild Strawberries announcing her verdict: guilty.

She often fell asleep at her desk at work, waking tired and confused. Her colleagues felt bad for her, and it was decided amongst them, with the approval of their boss, that they would do her job until the time when she was able to work. Tanya was very grateful to them and tried to work, but she couldn’t concentrate. She also started feeling nauseous in the mornings, and attributed the nausea to the sleeping pills. She stopped taking them, but it didn’t help. Only when she got cramps in her legs, did she suddenly come to life, as if she were Sleeping Beauty kissed by the Prince. She called her friends and described her symptoms. Go to the doctor, they told her. The doctor confirmed that she was pregnant.

After so many days of grief, it was unusual for Tanya to feel that something good had happened to her, and it occurred to her that maybe her pregnancy was a sign of forgiveness; maybe she, too, was forgiven, like Professor Borg. Then she realized that Nick, Andrew’s son, would be her child’s half-brother, and the next day after work, she walked over to Anna’s. It used to be Andrew’s, she thought sadly. Anna opened the door. Since she’d never seen Tanya before, she smiled and waited for Tanya to introduce herself. When Tanya did, Anna was startled, and her face became tense and hostile.

“I need to talk to you,” Tanya said in such an urgent and pleading tone that Anna let her in. She picked up Nick and sat down, holding him in her lap, as if seeking his protection and support. Tanya told Anna the whole story, from meeting Andrew on the subway train to her pregnancy.

“Why are you telling me all of this? What do you want from me?” Anna asked with animosity. Afraid of being interrupted, Tanya spoke in short, abrupt sentences.

“I want our children to grow up together. I want my child to have a brother. I don’t have any relatives. Your Nick would be my child’s only relative. It’s good for Nick, too, to have a brother or sister. We could help each other with the children. It’s too much of a responsibility for one person to raise a child. If we are together, our lives could resemble something normal. There would be four of us in this world. We could be like a family.”

When she finished, she looked at Anna. Anna’s face was thoughtful. A minute passed by, which seemed like an eternity to Tanya. Then Anna said softly, “All right. Let us help each other. Let’s raise our children together. Let them have each other. I don’t have any relatives either. I am so lonely. Would you like a cup of tea?”

That night, for the first time since Andrew’s death, Tanya had a long, deep sleep. And in that sleep, she didn't see any dreams.


Paulina Shur holds a Ph.D. in Theatre and Film from the Institute of Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia, and an M.F.A. in Theatre Directing from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va. She was a founder and Artistic Director of the Magic Mirror Theatre in Charlottesville, Virginia where she directed works by Harold Pinter, Oscar Wilde, Shakespeare, Moliere, and Lanford Wilson. She is a co-author of the book “How to Succeed in Breastfeeding Without Really Trying, or Ten Steps to Laugh Your Way Through,” published by the World Scientific in 2009.  


My work of fiction, “The Memory of Laughter,” has just been accepted by Lowestoft Chronicle.