She was tall. Taller than him. Thin. Wide hips. Long nose. None of his friends thought she was pretty. Marik once said that Lena was built like a kangaroo. And Kostik just hooted in agreement. But Vladimir thought Lena resembled a large bird.

Like a heron or a crane.

They had met in the summer of 1975. Vladimir was twenty-two and had just graduated from Leningrad State University. He came to the sixtieth birthday party of his old karate teacher, Arkadij Isakovich. Lena didn’t really belong at the party. She was just a distant relative of Arkadij Isakovich visiting from Moscow, sleeping on the couch in a dark corner of the kitchen. During the party the couch was heaped with all the food waiting for its turn on the table, so Lena had no choice but to join Arkadij Isakovich’s guests. She sat perched on the edge of the chair at the corner of the table, refusing offers of vodka, not smiling, staring into the mound of beet salad on her plate, as if she wanted to hide in there. Fat and drunk Aunt Galya kept screeching that Lena should swap places with one of the men, because it was a bad omen if a young girl sat at the corner. ‘Nobody will want to marry her!’

At some point Lena apparently had enough. She got up and said that she was going to the kitchen ‘to get more pickles’.

She rolled her r’s.

Vladmir saw her in the kitchen on his way to the bathroom. She was sitting on the windowsill with her back to him, blue cotton dress, chin-length light brown hair, long legs swinging to the floor, a jar of pickles in her hands. When he came out of the bathroom, she was still sitting there.

He walked up to her and asked: ‘What are you looking at?’

She blushed and said that she was nearsighted, but she thought there was a cat in the window of the adjacent building. He walked closer. The time must have been about 6 p.m., the sun was still up, but the enclosed space between the buildings was always dark. He had to press his face right to the glass in order to see anything outside. He wondered if he stank of alcohol.

‘See? Over there!’ she pointed, fixing a strand of light brown hair behind her ear. The skin of her neck looked very clean.

Yes, there was a cat, a large one, sitting in the sixth floor’s window and staring right at them, with mean indifference.

They looked at that cat for a long time, because neither of them was brave enough to turn and face the other.

He called Arkadij Isakovich the next day and asked if he could speak to Lena. ‘Vovka, why?’ Arkadij Isakovich asked. Vladimir didn’t say anything, just cleared his throat, then cleared his throat again – this time more assertively.

Arkadij Isakovich sighed and gave the phone to Lena.

‘Yes?’ she said in a very small voice.

‘How long are you here for?’

‘Three more weeks.’

He told her that he felt it was his duty as a Leningrad native to show her around.

She said that her mother had made a list of all the important landmarks for her. The Hermitage, the Russian Museum, Petrodvorets. ‘I don’t really care about art,’ she said, ‘but my mom would be mad if I don’t go. She says I must, while I’m here.’

They decided to meet by the entrance, and Vladimir arrived twenty minutes early. He wore his best shirt, a tight one with long lapels, made in Hungary, and his very tight pants made in East Germany – he had bought all that from his friend Kostik with the money he had made on his summer construction job. He was pacing around the square, wondering if he should’ve brought flowers. He wanted to, but then he thought that she’d have to carry them around the museum, and that would be stupid. Then he saw her loping toward him from the tram stop, wearing the same blue dress. The skirt ended right above her knees; she had an odd-looking purse hanging on her elbow, and she was out of breath, smiling. He regretted not buying the flowers.

Once inside, they were made to wear felt slippers. ‘Our floors are a work of art!’ the museum guard explained. They rummaged in the huge bin of slippers trying to find the ones that would be roughly their size. Lena picked blue ones to match her dress. The slippers were supposed to be worn over shoes. They had ribbons that you had to tie around your ankles. He watched how Lena studied them, trying to figure out which ribbon went where. Her legs were covered with thin golden hairs. He was hoping that she’d ask for his help in tying the ribbons, but she didn’t.

It was pretty hard to walk in those slippers. ‘I feel like a duck,’ Lena said. ‘Don’t you feel like a duck?’ And Vladimir did a duck walk for her and even said: ‘Krya-krya-krya’ in the best duck voice he could muster. Lena laughed so hard that the guard shook a finger at her.

It was easier to glide than walk, so they glided through all those rooms, very fast, barely pausing to look, so that the paintings merged into a sort of cartoon, a flickering of images: candles, globes, silver armor, velvet dresses, breasts. He would turn away from the breasts to show Lena his modesty and respect. There must have been a lot of people in the museum, it was crowded at all times, but he didn’t register anybody at all. It was as if they were alone. Lena lost her slipper on the staircase leading to the Renaissance floor, and he had to skip down a few steps to retrieve it. This time she let him tie the ribbons.

They continued their glide, until they got to the room that housed a visiting exhibition from the National Gallery in London. Lena stopped in front of one of the paintings and started giggling. The painting was called The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck. The woman was pregnant and very young, wearing something that looked like heavy curtains with frills. And the man – presumably her husband – was wearing a lampshade of a hat, a fur coat and black stockings (stockings!). Vladimir thought that Lena was laughing at the clothes, so he snickered too. ‘This is uncanny!’ she said. ‘What?’ he asked. ‘The resemblance! Doesn’t the guy in the painting look just like you?’

The man had a long, sad face. He looked nothing like Vladimir, who was about to take offense when Lena said, ‘Like this!’ and reached with her hand and moved his hair away from his forehead. Her fingers were clammy and small, and so warm that it took his breath away. ‘See? He has your nose and your mouth!’ Vladimir caught her other hand and squeezed it in his.

After they were finished with the museum, he took her to the best ice-cream parlor in the city, where they were served ice cream in stainless-steel bowls – three perfectly round scoops smothered in syrup. Lena ate all of hers and one of his.

She asked about his studies. He said that he was top of his class in law school. She was duly impressed. She said that she hated her school – a college for Communication Engineers. Math and physics were torture. Vladimir said that he hated math too. What he loved was history, especially Soviet history, especially World War II. She said she loved psychology, even though it wasn’t taught at her school. She just liked reading about it. She loved personality tests! ‘Do you have a pen?’ she asked. Vladimir produced a beautiful ballpoint pen with the engraving: to dear volodya on his sixteenth birthday. She took a piece of paper from her purse (all crumpled and stained), handed it to him and asked him to draw an animal that didn’t exist in nature.

‘Just imagine something, anything at all.’ She turned away to give him creative freedom.

He was nervous; he had no idea what the test might reveal. He thought that the worst would be if the test showed him as boring or meek. He decided to make his drawing as wild and detailed as possible. Big too. He made sure to take up almost the entire space.

‘Oy!’ Lena said when he invited her to look. Then she covered her mouth and giggled.

What he had drawn was a cross between a mammoth, a wolf and a caterpillar. A fat hairy beast with sharp teeth, huge ears, sparkling eyes and many many legs.

‘So?’ he said.

‘Well,’ she started, ‘you’re curious about the world – I can see that because you made the eyes and ears so big. And the drawing looks kind of crazy, so you must be adventurous.’

Yes! he thought.

‘You might be a little greedy, because you took so much space. Perhaps a bit insecure. Easy to hurt.’

What? he thought. No! His distress must have shown, because she smiled apologetically and touched his hand.

‘I say that because none of his many legs is touching the ground. See?’

Yes, she was right. Why, why couldn’t he have drawn all the legs on the same level?

‘And, well, it has this huge bushy tail.’

‘What does that mean?’ he asked.

She blushed and murmured that she’d rather not say.

He didn’t kiss her that day, or the day after when they glided through the Russian Museum. He kissed her the next weekend, when they made a trip to Petrodvorets. Lena’s mother insisted that she see the interior of Petrodvorets Palace, but the line to buy tickets was inhumanely long and neither of them was particularly interested in staring at the ‘tsar’s night vases and stuff’. So they just walked and walked around the grounds, marveling at all that gold and marble and the brilliant gushing water of the fountains. There were hordes of people there, noisy, sweaty, pushing their way through and hoisting their kids onto their shoulders or aiming their bulky cameras. Vladimir found it funny that all those people had no idea how little they mattered. He could’ve blown them all up, and it wouldn’t have changed anything. As long as Lena was there.

The best thing in Petrodvorets was the trick fountains. The spigots there were concealed in various innocent objects, and would erupt and shoot water at people at random moments, when they least expected it. Vladimir took Lena’s hand and they were running in and running out, jumping over the jets, crossing the invisible lines, trying to out-trick the trick fountains, screaming and laughing, until they got soaked through and had to retreat to a bench, where they sat down, out of breath and shivering.

Her face was wet and cold and her mouth was slippery but her body breathing at him through the damp folds of her dress was burning hot and her heart was beating like crazy.

After that trip, they found that the cultural riches of Leningrad didn’t interest them anymore and they preferred to meet in remote corners of the city’s parks, or dark staircases of random buildings, and sometimes they would even take a tram and ride all the way to its last stop and back, kissing the entire way.

Two weeks later, Vladimir’s parents went to their dacha and Vladimir asked Lena to his place. The apartment was very neat, but Vladimir dusted it one more time, and polished the already spotless floor. Then he took a tram to the center, went to the Nord bakery – the best one in the city – and bought his favorite cake, the layered one, glazed with chocolate and covered with walnuts. It was called Leningrad. At home, he put the cake in the fridge, bathed and shaved, spraying himself generously with the eau de cologne Shipr Korolevskiy – he had bought the bottle from Kostik a year ago, but had never used it because it was so expensive. He should’ve bought flowers, but now it was too late. Lena was due to appear at any moment.

‘Do you want cake?’ was the first thing he asked her, when he opened the door for her.

Lena shook her head. She was distant and quiet and her eyes had a panicked expression. She wore a short-sleeved blouse already darkened under the arms, bringing a complicated bouquet of female smells.

He took her on a tour of the apartment, which was just two rooms.

‘This is my room,’ he said, ‘This is my desk. These are my books. Do you like history?’

‘Not really,’ Lena said, but walked closer to the shelves. ‘Oh, that’s adorable!’ she cried, pointing to a framed photo of Vladimir at the age of twelve. Side bangs and shy smile. He blushed and said that it was his mom who put it there. They talked about their parents a bit. Lena said that if she had to describe her parents in one word, she would choose ‘disgruntled’. They behaved as if they had been cheated of something very important in their lives. Vladimir said that he would choose the word ‘old’.

‘Oy! What’s that?’ she asked, pointing at another framed photograph of a very handsome man in Nazi uniform.

‘That’s Alexander Belov from the The Shield and the Sword. The Russian intelligence officer posing as a Nazi.’

The Shield and the Sword?’ she asked.

‘I can’t believe you don’t know it. It’s my favorite film.’

She shrugged apologetically.

‘So here is what happens in the movie,’ he said. ‘Belov is a Soviet officer who learns German and goes to Germany right before the war, so he can infiltrate the German forces. And he is really clever, so he manages to build a great career over there in just a year or two. The Nazis send him to work in a concentration camp, Auschwitz, I think. They put him in charge of the spy school.’

‘There was a spy school there?’

‘There is in the movie. The Germans came up with the idea of training Russian prisoners to become German spies. They would break their spirit first, so they would agree to serve the enemy. Then they would teach the men how to operate a radio and make technical drawings, and they would teach the women how to operate a radio and be prostitutes.’

He blushed and cleared his throat when he said ‘prostitutes’. Then he continued, ‘When the students were ready, they would send them to Russia – drop them off planes with parachutes. They were supposed to spend some time there, gather the needed information and send it back to Germany.’

Vladimir saw that Lena’s eyes had glazed over a little. It wasn’t easy to hold her attention, so he had to try harder.

‘But when they put Belov in charge of the school, he subverted the entire operation. You see, he would reveal to the smartest and the most reliable students that he was in fact a Soviet intelligence officer, and together they could do a great service to the Motherland. So what they did was sabotage the missions and even send false information to Germany.’

‘Uh-huh,’ Lena said.

‘But imagine how hard his life must have been! Not to have any contact with your family, to pretend to be somebody else every second of every day, to live among the enemy, to pretend to make friends with the vile swine.’

‘That’s really tough, yeah,’ Lena said. ‘You have to be really smart to do it, and patient too.’

‘That’s what I want to do.’

‘To be a spy?’

‘No! An intelligence officer!’

‘Really?’ she asked.

‘I love the theme song from that movie – you must know it.’

She shook her head.

He cleared his throat and sang the first line: ‘What is the seed of the Motherland . . .’

‘Oh, yes!’ she said. ‘Of course, I know that song! I love that song. I just didn’t know it was from a movie.’ And she sang in a faltering voice, rolling her r’s:

What is the seed of the Motherland?
A picture in your spelling book.
The friends that you’ve known as children,
Their homes half a block away . . .

He caught her face in his hands and kissed her on the mouth. Then he picked her up and carried her to the sofa.

They spent about two hours on that sofa (blue balls hurting like hell), before she relaxed enough to let him slip two fingers inside her panties.

‘I’m a virgin,’ she whispered.

‘Do you want me to stop?’ he asked.

‘No, I just think that we should put a towel underneath. In case there is blood.’

He ran to the bathroom to get a towel, picking one his mother wouldn’t miss.

When he got back, she was naked, lying on her side, facing the wall. He spread the towel right under her butt. Then he took off his clothes, put a condom on and lay down next to her.

‘I’ll be gentle,’ he said into her back.

‘Please, don’t,’ she whispered. ‘My friends tell me that it hurts less if a boy is forceful and quick.’

Then she turned onto her back and spread her legs, trusting him to hurt her.

When he did, she cried out in pain and he wondered whether he should stop or continue. He was done before he could make a decision. He rolled off and kissed her on the cheek.

There was a huge smile of relief on her face.

‘I’m a woman now!’ she said. ‘Just like that. I can’t believe it!’

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘and I am your first man.’

‘Yes, you are!’

She went to wash herself and rinse the bloody towel. Then he went to wash.

‘Let’s have that cake now,’ she said. ‘Can we have it in your room?’

He nodded, even though his mother didn’t usually allow him to eat in his room, put on his pants and went to the kitchen.

‘Do you have any milk?’ she yelled after him.

He cut two large slices, put them on the good plates, poured milk into the good glasses, put it all on a tray and brought it to his room.

He had expected her to get dressed while he was in the kitchen, but found her sitting cross-legged on the sleeper sofa, naked.

‘Such a beautiful cake!’ she said, taking the plate with a crumbly slice of Leningrad. ‘And delicious too,’ she added with her mouth full.

Her small breasts drooped toward her stomach, which gathered into little folds like an accordion, her armpit hair was long and damp, and her wild bush was too close to the plate with the cake. Vladimir found all of this immodest and unhygienic, but she looked so happy and was clearly enjoying herself so much that he couldn’t help but forgive her.

When she asked for seconds, he said that he wouldn’t mind seconds too and winked at her, but she smiled and shook her head and said that she needed to heal first.

It had gotten dark. He suggested they go to his parents’ room to watch TV. She put on her clothes – bra, panties, the blouse, the wrinkled skirt. He brought them more cake, put it on the table and crouched in front of the TV so he could turn the knob that flipped channels. Not that there were many channels.

He prayed that there would be something good to watch, and found that they were in luck – the rerun of his favorite series, Seventeen Moments of Spring, was about to start!

Seventeen Moments!’ Lena cried. ‘Yes!’

He picked up his plate and snuggled next to her.

They had been eating all through the titles, but as soon as the first scene started she put her plate down.

‘This is my favorite scene,’ she whispered.

In that scene, Max Otto von Stierlitz, an SS Standartenführer (but really Soviet intelligence officer Maxim Isaev), is walking in the bare deserted woods. At some point, he raises his head and watches a flock of cranes move slowly across the sky. He looks tough, but sad, clearly tired of pretending to be a Nazi. A melancholy theme song is playing in the background, brazenly sentimental, brutally tearful.

‘Do you know what he is thinking right now?’ Lena asked.

‘What?’

‘He envies the cranes. They are free, and he is stuck there with the Nazis. He wishes he could become a crane and fly away with them. But he can’t.’

There were tears in her eyes.

Could it be that I love her? Vladimir thought.

Years later, when the president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, announced that he would lead a flock of cranes by flying with them in a motorized hang glider, people asked what inspired him to do it. He would give many answers, but never the true one.

Other people in Vladimir’s life started noticing that something was up.

First, his mother inquired how the guest towel ended up on the rack in the bathroom.

Then, his friend Marik asked if Vladimir was still seeing that girl from the party. Vladimir confirmed that he was. ‘Why?’ Marik said, ‘She’s not even pretty and she’s built like a kangaroo.’

Then it was Arkadij Isakovich’s turn.

‘No, Vovka, no!’ he said. ‘Trust me, you don’t want to get mixed up with that family. You’ve had your fun, but that’s it. You have a brilliant future ahead of you. Don’t let her derail that.’

And he knew that Arkadij Isakovich was right. She was a Jew. That was not good. The times were different now, but still, being a Jew or having a Jewish wife was never good.

Well, he thought, she would leave for Moscow in a few days anyway. And that was what they needed. Some time apart. Some time to cool off.

On their last evening together, they were walking down the dark city streets. It was a cool night. Lena was shivering. She was clinging to him. He wished he had a jacket on so he could take it off and drape it over her shoulders. It was time to take her back to Arkadij Isakovich’s place. They had to take a tram, but there were none in sight. They sat down on the bench in the glassed-in booth. There was a poster for yet another new thriller hanging behind them. Three Soviet intelligence officers in felt hats stared at them from the poster.

Vladimir took Lena’s hand and they sat in silence for some time. Then she looked at him and said: ‘Vova.’

There was so much affection in her voice that it made him choke.

‘Lena, let’s get married,’ he said, surprising himself.

She opened her mouth to say something, but he wouldn’t let her.

‘Listen, just listen,’ he said. ‘I’m joining the KGB in the fall. I’ve been selected. That’s a big honor. And don’t worry. It doesn’t matter that you’re a Jew, the times are different now. I don’t think they would kick me out just because I’m marrying a Jew. I would need to do some training, but after that the possibilities are endless. It’s a really good job. We will buy a car. They promised me an apartment within a few years. We will have our own apartment! You will have imported clothes. Special food rations. Salami, caviar. I could even get a foreign assignment. How does Germany sound?’

She opened her mouth again, but he wouldn’t let her speak. There was something desperate in her expression, something painful, something not right. She wasn’t going to say yes. It was clear. He had the sense that as soon as he let her speak, everything would be over. So he continued to talk.

‘We will live at my place for a while. Then they will give me an apartment. They promised. In just a couple of years. And a car. They promised me a car, too.’

He was repeating himself. He had to stop.

‘Vova,’ she said. ‘I can’t.’

‘You don’t have to decide right now,’ he said. ‘Please, don’t decide right now. Go back to Moscow tomorrow. Talk to your parents. How many years do you have left at your college? Two? You can transfer to a college here.’

‘Vova, no. I can’t. We are leaving. My parents and I. We are going to Israel.’

Then she started to cry.

‘When?’ he asked.

‘Very soon. All of the documents are ready,’ she was saying through tears and snot. ‘They sent me to Leningrad because it’s been crazy at home. Mom and Dad have been arguing all the time, screaming at each other, screaming at me.’

‘Why do they want to leave?’

‘I don’t know how to explain. My parents say that they are wasting their lives here. They’ve been waiting for this for years. They have gone through hell to get the exit visas.’

Fucking traitors of the Motherland! he thought.

‘I didn’t even want to go.’

‘Stay!’

‘I can’t. I can’t do it to them. I’m all they have.’

He turned away from her and pressed the knuckles of his hands to his forehead. He felt as if she had punched him. Right in the solar plexus. It had happened to him in his karate class. It was worse this time, much worse.

‘When were you planning to tell me?’

‘Today. Tonight. Vova, please try to understand,’ and she reached to stroke his face, but he jerked away from her.

So she had known this all along? She had known she was leaving. He had to ask her something. Something very important. It was hard to breathe.

‘Why? Why did you? Why did you start it with me then?’

Her crying turned into sobs now, and she was speaking to him through hiccups.

‘I don’t know. I liked you. I didn’t expect it to be so serious.’

‘Then why . . . why did you . . . why did you . . .’ (He wanted to say, ‘Why did you let me fuck you’ but found himself unable to say ‘fuck’ to her face). ‘Why did you let it happen, if you didn’t expect it to be serious?’

She turned away from him. She didn’t have a handkerchief, so she wiped her nose with the sleeve of her blouse.

There was something really ugly, really hateful about her, both hateful and pathetic. He wanted to hit her and he wanted to cry with her at the same time. He jumped off the bench and stared down at her.

‘You didn’t want to go to Israel a virgin, is that it? You wanted me to do the job, so that Jewish guys had it easy?’

She looked at him in disbelief, then stood up. It was crazy how tall she was. Her face was puffy and inexplicably ugly.

He was blocking her way.

‘Let me go,’ she said.

He didn’t move.

She pushed him aside and started to run.

The actors from the movie poster were staring at him. Mocking him from under their felt hats.

Fucking spies! he thought, and punched the guy in the center right in his stupid face.

At 9.30 a.m., the Moscow train station in Leningrad was teeming with people standing, walking, running. Stupid, senseless people with bulky suitcases and screaming kids. It was hot and it smelled like sweat, urine and unwashed clothes. Lena’s train was departing at 10.30 a.m. (Vladimir had asked Arkadij Isakovich to look at her ticket).

Vladimir arrived early, because he wasn’t sure what he would do once there. He knew that he wanted to see Lena one more time, but he wasn’t sure if he wanted her to see him or not. He looked up at the yellow building of the station and remembered an amusing fact he’d learned in school. The buildings of the Moscow Station in Leningrad and the Leningrad Station in Moscow were exactly the same. Identical buildings in two different cities. What an idiotic idea!

His hand hurt. He had broken the glass when he punched that poster and there were cuts so deep that it took a while for the bleeding to stop. ‘Did you get into a fight again?’ his mother asked while she was dressing his wound. ‘Is this about a girl?’

The ice-cream kiosk was open. Vladimir walked over and bought himself an Eskimo pie. It was sweet and cold and it made his teeth hurt, but still he finished it too soon. He threw the wrapper and the stick into the garbage can and looked at the clock. It was ten – time to go the platform. He passed two Georgian men selling flowers. He asked for the red tulips – they tried to cheat him out of twenty kopeks, but he caught them in time.

The train to Moscow was already there, dusty and green and smelling of machine oil. He walked to the center of the platform and hid behind the thick column.

He stood there for twenty minutes or so, leaning against the cold marble. Peeking at the passersby like a spy. He looked at his bound hand and thought, A wounded spy. He noticed that the tulips were already starting to wilt, must have been old – those Georgians had cheated him after all. He was thirsty and he wanted to pee.

Then he saw Lena making her way down the platform, wearing that same blue dress she wore when they met. She was bent under the weight of the large leather suitcase.

His impulse was to rush over and help her carry it, but he stepped back instead.

She walked to the door of her car, put the suitcase down, handed the ticket to the conductor. While the conductor checked her ticket, Lena took a look around as if searching for him. She seemed to be looking in his direction, so he took one more step back, then remembered that she was nearsighted and couldn’t see him anyway.

His heart was beating very fast and his hand squeezing the flowers was clammy with sweat.

The conductor gave Lena her ticket and she hoisted her suitcase up the steps, then climbed up herself. Her seat was in compartment 4. Vladimir counted which window that would be; the blinds were drawn. He waited for Lena to pull them up, to look out of the window, but the blinds remained closed.

The train budged and inched forward. Lena’s car was creeping away from him. Then, as if by a miracle, Lena appeared at the door. She was holding on to the handle, with one long leg on the step, and the other hidden behind her, craning her neck to see the platform better. The train started to gain speed.

He wanted to rush toward her, to run after the train, to scream her name, but he remained standing there as if frozen, squeezing his tulips.

When the train was out of sight, he dropped the tulips on the floor of the platform and headed back toward the station.

What is the seed of the Motherland?
A picture in your spelling book.
The friends that you’ve known as children,
Their homes half a block away . . .
Or, maybe, the seed of the Motherland
Is the lullaby your mother sang,
The memories stronger than trials
That cannot be taken away.

 

Lara Vapnyar Vladimir in Love

Vladimir Putin sits in a motorized hang glider next to a Siberian crane, Yamal Peninsula, September 2012

 

 


Painting © National Gallery, London / Bridgeman Images
Jan van Eyck, Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife, 1434

Photograph © Ria Novosti / AP / PA

 

 

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