September 23, 2021

A Phone Call

by Maxim Matusevich

—Hello?

—You have exactly twenty seconds to guess who is calling you!

—Excuse me? I really…

—Come on! GUESS!

—I can’t… but you sound… familiar?

—Well, thank you, that’s at least something… FAMILIAR… And you sound so FORMAL. Is it because I’m calling you at work?

—No, it’s because I’m still trying to figure out who you are…

—Ok, fine, let me help you. Let’s see if your brain cells are still intact. Close your eyes, meditate for a second—imagine that you’re back in Leningrad, late-1980s, it’s May or June, the White Nights, the bridges are up (aren’t they always up during the White Nights?). You and I, the two of us, are stuck across the river. I’m wearing a light muslin dress with draw strings up front. Off white color with floral pattern. You tell me I look like a Latvian peasant and that no one in Leningrad would wear a dress like that. Then you kiss me…

—Jesus…

—Well, you do. You did. Don’t you remember?

—Vaguely, it’s all a bit generic. But I can’t help thinking that I recognize your voice.

—Of course, you do. How could you not? You poor fellow, your poor, poor brain cells. I am… are you ready? Gulp for air, my friend, take a deep breath, then hold it in for a few seconds. Now… ex-hale… I am… N.

—?

—You remember me now, don’t you? If not then I’m hanging up and… I dunno… swallowing my favorite poison? I know it’s been a while but we’re not THAT old. At least that’s how I prefer to think about it: not THAT old. I even wrote you a few letters when you were in the service. Not often, but I certainly did. For my twentieth I had a nice picture taken—wearing that floral dress. I looked radiant in it. Not my words, by the way—yours. I mailed you the picture and that’s what you said in a thank you letter. Radiant. Your words, not mine. Like a radiant Latvian peasant, right?

—Oh god, yes, of course! N.! That picture, I still have it somewhere in my army archive. Actually, just last summer I was going through the folder and found the photo. You did look radiant in it! Glowing!

—Finally! Dude, time has not been kind to you. A bit slow, aren’t you? Ha, how did you manage to make it in America? My sister-in-law lives in Baltimore. She says, in the States, you slow down you die. Just kidding. Actually, not kidding—I’m pretty sure she meant it. Whatever… Yes, glowing… That photo—I had just found out that I was pregnant. Literally a couple of hours before the picture was taken. My first husband, you see, not a happy story.

—So you must have a grown-up child…

—No and yes. That one didn’t grow up, was not even born—a miscarriage, and a bad one too. Might be as well, the father was really fucked up in his head. He had come back from Afghanistan, all messed up. I felt sorry for him, mostly sorry, I think, but also all these other feelings… Wonder what they were actually… My mom took one look at him and said: “Run, you fool, run!” My mom is a wise woman, I should have listened to her more often. But who listens to their mother at twenty? I did run eventually, of course.

—So what about the yes part of your answer?

—A-ha! Two kids: a boy and a girl, both students now, wonderful children, just wonderful. She’s studying to be a hairdresser, he is going to be a programmer, like his dad. His dad, of course, is Robert. My #2. Can I tell you something important about Robert?

—Yes, please, do tell me.

—Robert is… I don’t know how to put it… He is part of me, we’re SO together. I don’t know if it’s even possible to be as close as we are. Maybe I’m revealing too much. I had a drink, sure, so never mind me… Never mind if I blabber too much. But I know you care about me, so you don’t mind if I make a fool of myself, do you?

—No, of course not, and you’re not making a fool of yourself. I’d love to learn more about your life.

—You’re really nice—that’s exactly how I remember you: my polite and intelligentnyj Leningrad boy. So sweet. And now back to Robert… yes, we’ve been together for so long that I can’t even imagine his absence (God forbid, knock on wood, I’m fucking superstitious). You know, I hope you don’t mind my saying this, because exes can be weird, you know? But Robert and I have not slept in separate beds in twenty years. Not once. My girlfriends don’t believe me, they all have separate bedrooms. But I can’t even imagine spending a night without Robert next to me. It would be like leaving your limb outside before you walk in.

—I’m really happy to hear this. So few happy couples out there and every unhappy couple…

—I know, I know, you don’t have to quote Tolstoy at me, I am not one of your students. Say, they probably all have crushes on you, no?

—No, not in the States. Here students don’t have crushes on their professors and, frankly, it’s hard for me to see them that way. They are just… I dunno… kids.

—Kids?! You’re not teaching elementary school, are you? How old were we when we… well, when we first met?

—Eighteen? Nineteen?

—Right, and we were young, to be sure, but hardly kids. I was planning to marry you, for God’s sake. And then your army, and my marriages, and your leaving for America and getting married (or was it the other way around?) and never writing me one fucking letter. In twenty years! That’s not kids’ stuff. That’s fucking adult stuff.

—You… were planning to marry me? I had no idea! Did we…?

—Yes, YES! Those brain cells, those poor brain cells—you don’t remember anything, my poor dear. Ok, let me pour myself another drink, I need it right now. Here, wait… I’ll explain it to you. In case you haven’t noticed yet (being so slow and everything), I’m really good at explaining things. Did you know that I googled you?

—No, but now that you mentioned it, how did you track me down? And, listen, I’m happy you did. Just curious…

—Drink and google, buddy. It used to be drink and dial, now it’s google. I heard you on the radio. Don’t ask how and why, I just heard you on the radio and then, well, googled. You’re like the easiest guy in the universe to find—like an open book your life is. I even found a website where your students complain that your classes are boring. Bastards! And you, you probably never even googled me. Don’t you drink anymore?

—I do, of course. I mean, I do drink but…

—It’s ok, no worries. I’ll let you off the hook. For now. And you wouldn’t be able to find me by my maiden name anyway. So I choose to think that you did google me but nothing came up, right? Don’t say a word! Let’s pretend that’s exactly what happened. And I’ll take this silence for a yes. Yes?

—…

—Thank you, dear.

—…

—Are you still there? Listen, I’m actually calling you for a reason. The weather has been just awful around here. We now live close to the sea, in Robert’s family home. It’s a large Finnish A-frame, 1929 construction—which is just wonderful when the sun is shining… But you know, the Baltics is not the Mediterranean, it’s capricious like… like I used to be at eighteen. When the fog rolls in it gets dark and damp and soggy. The winds howl, they come from all the different directions at once and chill your bones and pierce your soul. I hope I’m not sounding too poetic for your taste. Hope not—I’m always suspicious of poetry. What I’m trying to say is this: it’s fucking cold here half of the year. But not just that, that’s not the only thing (OBVIOUSLY) I’m trying to tell you…

—I’m listening…

—Damn, I’m being chatty. Listen, I did call you for a reason. Can I confess? Are you ready? You’d better be seated… Oh, hell, what am I saying, you’re ALREADY seated, you’re in your OFFICE. I’m calling you at your American office to tell you something that I have never shared with any living soul. Except of Robert, of course, because Robert and I—we share everything. But it’s a simple thing, a fact of life, MY life, that I believe you should know: I have never gotten over you.

—… ?! What? I mean, that can’t be true. Twenty years? You disappeared so long ago. You lived your life…

—Sheesh! Please, don’t say a word. Really, you don’t have anything to say, because it’s not your story. It’s mine. I never stopped loving you. As simple and as complicated as that. Robert knows. I told him when he and I started dating that there was someone in my past that I just couldn’t forget. I asked him if he could live with it. He said yes, absolutely. And he has lived with it all these years. He’s the best thing that has ever happened to me, I would never live with anyone but him. And he knows it—in his strong and calm and confident Robert way. Falling asleep next to him makes a day worth living. Our bed is up in the loft, the window looks over the dunes—you can hear the waves from where we sleep. And the mattress is super comfortable, with memory foam. It’s IKEA.

—Sounds cozy. A sea view, an A-frame loft… You know how many people would like to have this life?

—I know, I am not ungrateful. Ungratefulness is one of those deadly sins, right next to lust… or sloth… one of those. I am not like that. In a way, that’s why I’ve loved you all these years—out of gratitude for that week we spent together in your apartment on Petrogradskaya. It was a high point, but also a vanishing point. You were about to be drafted and I knew that we wouldn’t be able to continue forever. We didn’t make plans, but you couldn’t get enough of me. I felt so… wanted. There was a moment when I thought that maybe we could get married, you know—to make the moment last a bit longer… Am I making you uncomfortable?

—Well, it’s not that… It’s just… Did you say Petrogradskaya…?

—Yes, your apartment, steeped in silence, just the sound of our lovemaking, and the old clock ticking. What’s that line? “The apartment is quiet as paper…” It’s not like me to recite poetry. Blame it on the wine, I guess. Sorry, I don’t want to make you uncomfortable and God knows I don’t want your students to see you blushing later. They might write some nasty stuff about you on that weird site. Why do they even let them write such things about their teachers? And your mother, of course. SHE was unhappy! What, some crazy Polish shiksa ensnaring her precious Jewish son? She would’ve never accepted me! I knew that the moment she snubbed me when you brought me over.

—That certainly doesn’t sound like my mom. Or my dad, for that matter. They never encouraged me to date Jewish girls. In a way, it was sort of the other way around… Also that thing about Petrogradskaya…

—Don’t interrupt me, please. You keep interrupting… I know professors are used to hearing the sound of their own voice, but just give me a few minutes. Bear with me… Remember that old Soviet film, “I Ask to Blame Klava K. for My Death”? The Soviet Union was a dump, but they did make some amazing films. Remember the final scene from that movie?

—No, I don’t really… Sorry.

—Why “sorry”? Stop apologizing. You keep apologizing—like befits a good Jewish boy, a good Jewish son. No need. So, the film… The guy in the film can’t get over a snooty brunette who has tormented him since kindergarten. There is another girl, who is in love with him—your typical love triangle—and the main character is trying desperately to fall in love with the good one. And he just can’t… But the other girl is wise (sort of like my mother) and she knows that no matter how hard he tries, he’ll never love her, because you never really get over some people. You never do. They showed that film last year on the Russian channel and that final scene just keeled me over, I couldn’t stop bawling. Robert knew instantly why I was crying. My Robert…

—I think I remember the film now. Some provincial town, where everyone is smartly and fashionably dressed, they all seem to be chess-players, sculptors, and math wizards. The teenagers dance freely in a brightly lit city park to Afrique Simon’s, “Hafanana.” All lies, of course. But a lie, when properly remembered, can become the truth… Say, just before, you mentioned Petrogradskaya… Why? I never lived on Petrogradskaya. I’m from the other side of the river. And my mother… what you’ve described doesn’t sound like her. Not at all. She would’ve never called you a shiksa. In fact, I don’t believe she knew a single Yiddish word. Just not that kind of family. And I don’t recall her being all that possessive. And my father… he had something of a blond Slavic fetish. Never practiced what he preached, but preached it he did nevertheless…

—A father? I don’t remember him. It was just you and your mom…

—AND my father, AND my grandma—we all lived together ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE RIVER.

—…Now you’re confusing me, and you should never do this to a woman who has just had a couple of glasses of Malbec. And not just any woman, mind you, but one who has spent more than twenty years hoping to make this phone call. I’m not twenty like I used to be, but far from senile, and, if you care to know, men still check me out. I get catcalls all the time. My sister-in-law tells me in the States guys get sent to jail for catcalling. Not in our little progressive republic by the sea. Thank god. Why are you confusing me so?

—I am sorry…

— You are sorry again. You should be. You do remember the bridge though, don’t you? The raised bridge? I can hear you nodding. You remember the kiss, right? A-ha, another nod—I hear it. We cross the bridge by the fortress and walk past the Mosque. It’s chilly, so early in the morning, and you’re holding me tightly and I think that all I want is your presence. You’re so skinny, a waifish Leningrad boy. Back then I had a weakness for the type, there were so many of you: all polite, shy but hungry—hungry for me. Your mother sensed danger right away—a C-cup-sized Polish shiksa equals DANGER. That whole week we hardly left the room, we avoided her. She made a terrible racket in the kitchen and dropped pots and cutlery on the floor every ten minutes—just to make her displeasure known. Duly noted, madame, duly noted. All this nonsense was like an aphrodisiac to me… Then, later, after they had drafted you, I kept having those weird sex dreams. About us. That’s why I hardly ever wrote to you, I just didn’t know how to put all those feelings on paper… “The apartment is quiet as paper”… All those yearnings… so exhausting. I slept around a lot after they had taken you away from me, lots of bed hopping. Each new guy had your eyes, I chose them that way—your chestnut brown eyes stayed with me even after you left… You say what?

—The eyes… My eyes are not brown. They’ve never been brown.

—What?

—What color? Hard to tell… I think they are sort of green or light grey. Definitely not brown… And my mom… And the bridge… The other side of the river… N., I’m pretty sure that guy was not me.

—Not you? And you say it so easily: “Not me.” Like a little kid, like you’ve been waiting for it all along. My little stonewaller you are: “Not me, I didn’t do it!” Ha-ha. You’re funny. But I still love your voice. It’s ok, don’t bother to apologize. God, you’re really into apologies. But that’s so you and I love you for that. Robert—he never apologizes. You know why? No? Because he has absolutely nothing to apologize for. His eyes are not brown by the way, they are… well, not brown.

—Listen, I do remember you. Of course, I do. And I am really sorry that it was not me. And I am not apologizing for saying “I’m sorry”… Those old friendships—they are important to me, too. Memories are important, we learn from them…

—Now that’s something you would say. Shit, I’m almost out of wine and the wind is picking up again. What is it exactly that you’ve learned from this memory?

—My insignificance, I guess?

—Ha! Good one. You’re my history professor and your eyes are definitely brown, chestnut brown. Do I care what you have to say now? No, not really. Class dismissed as they say in the movies, especially in that one—about Klava K. Poor Klava, it’s all her fault. The wind is howling like CRAZY, it’s coming in squalls now… can you hear it? Wait a sec, I’ll put the phone on speaker—I want you to hear the gusts. It’s high tide, too. Can you hear it? The wind is playing catch-up with the sea. The sea is winning. Robert will be back home soon. I hate it when he drives in this weather. He and I will sleep together tonight on our memory foam. In more than twenty years, not one night apart. Not once… A day worth living… I may call you again… Don’t worry, on this number—at your office, not at home. And if there is anything you have to say to me, you can say it now…

—Thank you.

—“Thank you?” Hmm, “thank you” is good. Sufficient. Sort of perfect for the occasion. You have a way with words, my brown-eyed Leningrad boy. I know, you think it’s not you. Such delusions… And NOW I’m officially out of wine. Too late to drive to the store. And that wind… howling… The chill. Let’s do this again soon, ok? Let’s do this again. You promise? Good night, my love.

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