Going the Distance
For her farewell dinner he makes lobster bisque and bakes fresh sourdough bread, her favorite. Watching him prepare the soup from the kitchen doorway, she laughs as the steam fogs his glasses. She has one leg propped up on the other like a bird as she leans, tells him about the things she wants to see in St Petersburg this time that were missed during her first visit.
“I’ll think of you every time I see a statue of a great man,” Sonya says, to his groan, “and I’ll miss the way you move so close to me in the middle of the night.” He nods as she comes behind him and rests her arms around his waist. He makes a list in his head of the things he will do while she is gone so as not to miss her.
He carries her bags as they walk through the nearly empty airport to her terminal, the sound of their footsteps bouncing off the walls. They watch cleaning crews whizzing by them with upheld mops looking like army patrols. When they talk, it is in whispers.
“What if I translate wrong?” she says, “what if I get lost and can’t find my apartment, and I end up sleeping in a hostel and get abducted by a gang of punk rockers from Germany, dye my hair pink and never make it back to the US?”
“You never translate wrong, Sonya, and if you get abducted by punk rockers they’ll grow bored of you after realizing that you can’t hold your liquor.” Drew laughs, imagining Sonya with pink hair and a long-ashed cigarette hanging from her lips. She frowns.
“And if you suddenly developed an insatiable thirst for beer, I’d come rescue you.”
At the gate Sonya removes her shoes and a half asleep man directs her towards one of the metal detectors. Drew pulls her in for a hug, breathing her scent in deeply.
“I’ll call you the first chance I get, everyday,” she says, pressing her fingers into the space between the muscles of his back. He thinks how he will miss her voice in his ear, the smell of her skin in the morning, the way she manages to fit her every emotion into a single glance in his direction.
“It’s only three months,” she whispers, under his ear.
The next morning he cooks himself her favorite breakfast—fried eggs with sun dried tomatoes and bleu cheese. He sits alone at the kitchen table facing the lone cottonwood in the backyard.
He remembers how she looked the first day they met, her eyebrows raised over the tops of her sunglasses, hands on hips.
“I just missed an interview because of you,” she told him, poking his square in the chest with her finger. He looked down to his bike and realized he had locked it up to hers inadvertently.
“I’ve been waiting over an hour for you to show up!” she continued, furious.
“I’m sorry,” he said, pushing his hair from his face while fumbling with the lock, “I was late myself, and my law professor will close and lock the door at he start of class…I couldn’t afford to miss this one, we have an exam next week and I keep mixing up these two difference decisions because he has this really thick Russian accent. Sometimes I can’t understand him enough to know which one he’s talking about.” When he looks up she is smiling. Propping her bag on her knee she pulls out a folder with the name ‘Kiesloeski’ written on it.
“I translate his class into Russian,” she said, “and I have all his lectures in English, if you’re interested.”
“But I just made you miss an interview,” he said, looking guilty at the proffered papers.
“So you owe me a coffee,” she said, freeing her bike from his, “and if you’re done getting brainwashed for the day, I know just the place.”
When Sonya calls she is breathless.
“There was a car waiting for me when I got here,” she told him, “and when I got in they offered me a glass of vodka! Really. The housing is amazing too, these building are from the 19th century.” He can imagine her standing on the steps of the apartment building, her hair wild, looking over the architecture of the city.
As she recounts the details of her journey he makes a list of the fruit trees he wants for the yard: peach, cherry, pear, Asian pear, plum. No figs, he thinks, making a face. After their goodbyes he drives to the garden store and buys strawberries, tomatoes, zucchini, green peppers, basil, oregano and lavender plants. He packs them into the car, the mix of scents making his eyes water. During his lunch breaks over the next week he sketches the layout of the garden, using colored pencils and highlighters to designate the area for each.
The sun is still setting early but he works until the cold air numbs his fingers. He tills the rough patches of dirt, hauling out chunks of rock to border each section. He slashes blackberry mercilessly, later pulling out the tiny prickers under his skin with Sonya’s tweezers.
When the weekend comes it is unusually hot. He suffers out the days planting the fruit trees. He feels his stomach grumbling as he finishes the last one, packing the soil in around it’s skinny trunk, his hands warm and gritty inside the gloves as he surveys the job. Part of him is done, wants to get clean and make lunch, but the other part reminds him that the trees need to be staked. He groans and heads to the garage, back cracking as he stretches up. After ten minutes of calmly searching for the twine he begins pulling random boxes off the shelves.
“Goddamn it,” he says, grabbing a box full of Sonya’s college memorabilia, “this stuff is just taking up space.” He grips the box at the corner, staring at the yellowed papers and ticket stubs, muttering about the foolishness of keeping such things. His eyes fall onto a rubber-banded stack of postcards, the one on top showing a faded picture of the Neva River at night, the golden blazing lights of the many palaces trumpeting up into the sky. He sits down on the concrete floor with the box in hand, unwinding the stack and flipping the card over, finding Sonya’s sprawling cursive. They are addressed to Frank, her ex. Leaning against the metal shelves he reads the first one.
From my room I can see a statue of Nicolas I…isn’t it so impressive that Gogol could flourish under such autocratic conditions?? Goes to show the force of the human spirit. I went to his grave and was told by and older gentleman that when his body was relocated to another site, they found that he had been buried face down! The guy suggested Gogol could have been buried alive—very unpleasant thought. I have a conference tonight and beforehand we are having caviar and MORE vodka!
Drew knew that Sonya had been in Russia for her semester abroad junior year, and that he had entrusted her boyfriend at the time with her cats, her plants and her electric bill. He also knew that during her trip she had fallen out of love with her for reasons she couldn’t fully explain.
“He was a literature major,” she said, “and he was just…boring.”
When she had come back ready to move on with her life, she had offered Frank her favorite cat, which he had refused with tears in her eyes, as she relayed to Drew, and had given back everything of hers in a velvet box.
“I don’t know what I was thinking,” she explained, and had kissed Drew’s cheek, “but I’m glad I ended it then…or I would never have found you.”
He leaves the box on the floor and cleans up the yard, trying to picture a younger Sonya in a hotel room writing postcards, stopping only to go to the window and trace the street routes with her fingers, her dark hair sticking a bit to the condensation on the glass.
He spends the next two weekends planting the fruits and vegetables, hauling his stereo outside to make the work less grueling. Each night when he speaks to Sonya he mentions nothing of his project, delighting in the anticipation of her surprise.
He makes excuses to go to the garage, keeping his postcard reading coincidental. When he finds one from Poland he is surprised, never having heard of this trip.
I spent three days in Warsaw and took a train to Krakow and then a bus to Birkenau with Chloe and spent almost a full day going through the museum. It is entirely eerie: there are glass cases full of prisoners’ shoes, and hair. A woman standing next to me broke down and collapsed into me, sobbing. She told me her relatives had died here, and together we put flowers at the entrance to th furnaces, where candles burn all day and night…on the way back on the train I was reading Joseph Conrad’s ‘Lord Jim’ and came across the line “In our hearts we must trust for our salvation in the men that surround us, in the sights that fill our eyes, in the sounds that fill our ears, and in the air that fills our lungs.”
He now imagines her on the train to Warsaw, he eyes heavy with tears and the pen stopping every so often as she searches for the right word, not wanting to write of such things. That night he tries to match the voice on the phone to that of the girl on the train. She tells him she walked along the Neva that day and he imagines her miniaturized form making it’s way across the first postcard, a part of Russia.
“The nights are getting longer,” she says, “soon the sun will hover just above the horizon and it will be perpetual twilight.”
When the garden is as he planned, he begins to pull the weeds that have already made their way through the soil. He buys and old iron table and chairs at a second hand store and sets them up in a flat shaded spot under the cottonwood. It looks good, he tells himself. New, but good. The chairs need to be cleaned, and he goes to the garage to get a rag but instead finds himself holding the stack of postcards. The last one in the pile portrays a wintery scene, the roads of the city made blank by snow.
Chloe and I have been studying non-stop, taking long walks along the river (where it is getting quite cold!) when we are going loco. We spent last night getting really drunk and ended up in a heated discussion about the differences between US and Russian foreign policy with a bunch of economics majors…really we were all just complaining, though somewhat nostalgically as the night went on. We’re going out for dinner now and I have to say, I love this city but if I have to eat one more meat filled pastry I’m going to scream! I can’t wait to get back to the States and eat a big bowl of fruit!
Drew stacks the postcards and winds the rubber band around them, slipping them back into the cardboard box he found them in. Sitting on the floor to reorganize the boxes, he finds himself looking into a cracked mirror that stands behind the shelving. His face appears grimy and worn and he immediately brings his hand to his face, as if to ensure the reflections inaccuracy.
“Why did she stop loving him?” he asks himself in the mirror, watching his eyebrows flex and relax.
“She loves you, so why does it matter?” he continues, and though he feels it is true his eyes seem to doubt it.
“I wonder where it is,” he says, now looking down at his shoes, the soles of which are caked in fresh black soil, “between the beginning of love, when all you can do is doubt that the other person feels as strongly as you, and the commonness of love when it becomes nothing more than interdependency…I wonder when it is that you can just feel comfortable, when you can just be aware of it but not controlled by it or unimpressed by it…”
He smoothes the tops of the boxes down and pushed himself upright, grabbing rag before heading back out to the yard. He tries to think only of her, that she is coming home in two days, that she loves him.
When Sonya sees him she shrieks and bounds towards him, the wheels of her suitcase giving out so that she is dragging it sideways. She had cut her hair short and wears a color purple he had never seen before.
“You look thin,” she says into his chest.
“You look more Russian,” he responds. Her laugh vibrates against him.
The next morning she can’t stop looking out the window at the yard.
“It looks amazing,” she tells him, shaking her head in amazement.
She gulps the juice like a woman having come from the desert and says, with bits of pulp on her lips, “how did you know this is what I wanted?”
| COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED