I was nervous, to say the least, Father, as I rang the downstairs bell at Lucy’s old tenement. Most of the old buildings had been torn down, replaced by huge high-rises. Mother became very angry when they started building those big buildings.
“Big and ugly, Alex.”
This building had seen better days, but it was still standing in a choice spot overlooking the ocean. There were so many unanswered questions: did Lucy live here with her grandmother? Or, was she just one of those professional caregivers assigned to keep an eye on us Manhattan Syndrome types?
I guess you can tell by now, Father, I hated those bastards with a passion. They always seemed to show up when you don’t want to see them, which is never! First the witch doctors, then them! All part of the same industry set up to so-called help us, but really to give a lot of money and control over people’s lives to a bunch of highly selected people: our President for Life, Reverend Guess’s new effete elite.
But, what was I to expect? Maybe this was just one of those old-fashioned, multi-generational immigrant families with brothers, uncles, sisters, fathers and mothers? And, what could Lucy want from me, except Russian lessons?
Lucy buzzed me up, and soon I found myself being introduced to a round, jolly-looking, fat old lady.
“Grandmother, this is Alexander.”
The woman struggled mightily to get up from her chair.
“No. No,” I said, motioning for her to stay put. “Stay seated.”
She thankfully settled back down.
“Hello Alex,” she said. “It’s been a long time since we last spoke. Your mother and I were such good friends. Sit down, young man. Have a seat. Lucy, ask Alex if he wants something to drink. A little vodka, perhaps?”
As to be expected, the apartment was dimly lit. These days you could not buy a light bulb over 35 watts, and caregivers would poke around your apartment to make sure that there was only one lamp per room.
Anna Libid spoke rapidly, with only a touch of a Russian accent. It was hard to believe that this was the same person I met at the Pushkin Playhouse so many years ago, but she didn’t look or sound like someone who was looking for a place to go and die.
Her voice was buoyant, confident, playful even. I also noticed through the dim light that she was heavily made up, and her hair was all puffed up in a giant gray bouffant. She looked as if she had just walked out of the hairdresser’s.
To top off her great looking do, she had on a long, fancy blue dress, a gold speckled blue and gray shawl, and a long string of pearls. She looked outrageous, Father!
I couldn’t imagine anyone sitting around her dim apartment, dressed like that on a regular basis. This clearly must be a special evening for her.
Lucy laughed easily at her grandmother’s enthusiastic behavior.
“Grandmother, at least let Alexander take off his coat before you start ordering us about.”
Anna Libid rolled her large, gray eyes upward dramatically, in one of Mother’s grand theatrical gestures, and threw her hands in the air. These old actresses are all the same, Father!
“What’s an old lady to do, Alex? She’s always picking on me!”
For some reason, I was enjoying all this lighthearted banter. Just as Lucy had put me at ease the other day on the beach, her grandmother had done the same thing in a manner of minutes.
I handed Lucy my coat and gloves. When I tried to push my black watch cap into my coat pocket, I felt the old program. I had brought it along as a conversation starter, because I was unsure how I would handle myself or if I would have anything to say.
I pulled it out. “Look,” I said, handing it to her, and saying in Russian, “I brought you a little present.”
I watched as her gray eyes lit up with delight, both by my Russian and my little present. I had guessed right! I hoped that she hadn’t seen this program in years.
“Oh, Alex!” she said.
She gently took the program from my hand, almost as if she were afraid to damage it. She held it lovingly to her chest, in a warm embrace.
You won’t believe this, Father, but this fat old lady sprang up from her chair and gave me a big bear hug..
“Madame Litvinova always said you were a good boy,” she whispered in my ear in Russian. I could smell layers of perfume and powder, and who knows what else she had applied to that overly made-up face of hers..
I briefly glanced over at Lucy. She seemed pleased. She was smiling like crazy. I knew she could sense that I was relaxed and had been completely won over by her grandmother. Her instincts on that cold bench had proven to be correct..
I sat down on the small couch next to Anna, trying to decide if I should really chance some vodka. All real Russians drank vodka. I knew that. But, I was afraid of the stuff, Father..
No matter what demons haunted me in the interiors of my mind, I still had not given myself to alcoholic despair, as so many of us with the Manhattan Syndrome had done. That wine I drank every evening when I could make a score was good stuff, not cheap shit. Being a ranking Officer in the U.S. Military was more about kicking ass. We were also gentlemen, Father..
Finding good wine could be a bitch, but it was worth it, and it didn’t pack the wallop that the same amount of vodka, gin, or Colonel Bird’s good, old bourbon would have packed..
But why not a little taste of vodka tonight? So far, this had turned into a most promising evening, the most promising evening I had experience in a long time..
Lucy went into the kitchen to fix us vodkas on the rocks.
As soon as she left, Anna K. Libid leaned over to me and said in Russian, her face not so jolly now, “You’ve had a rough time, haven’t you, Alex?”.
I lowered my head and felt the sadness returning.
“Don’t feel so bad,” she said, sensing that she’d touched the wrong button. “Lucy has also suffered. And so, have I. She’s like you, Alex, only half-Russian, poor child. Her mother was Irish, or American Irish, or something like that. Who knows with you Americans, what you are?” .
I looked at her more closely. I hadn’t noticed the Manhattan Syndrome on either her or Lucy.
“How has she suffered?” I asked in Russian.
“Her mother and father were both killed that day. And, all her mother’s family. I also lost my only son, my only child. You know, we Russian don’t have many kids like you Americans do. I was all she had left. I had to take her in.”
Anna spoke rapidly in Russian with a lowered voice, as if she didn’t want anyone else to hear what we were talking about, as if only I needed to have this important bit of information so I could better understand her granddaughter.
Lucy returned, interrupting us. She handed us our drinks and settled down in a chair right across from me. I didn’t know if she now sensed that I now knew something about her that I hadn’t known when she left the room for our drinks..
But, it was funny, Father. I was glad to hear what I heard. I now knew that I could trust her. She wasn’t a phony caregiver, making a living off the misery of others and spying on us for the Clerics. Lucy was a real person! That news shifted the gloom I had experienced from Anna’s questions and made me feel hopeful again..
“Look, child.” Anna reached over and handed Lucy the prized program with her chubby hand.
“Which is Mrs. Litvinova, the one with the white hair?” Lucy asked. She directed her question to me. She looked closely at the photo of the cast on the back of the program, holding it up the dim light..
“Yes, that’s Mother.”
“And, look at you, grandmother! You were soooo beautiful.”
Father, you should have seen the look of pride on Anna K. Libid’s face. I thought that she was about to burst. “It was such a wonderful play. Your mother was so good. What a director!”
“And, she was a good actress,” I added.
“A good actress?” Mrs. Libid asked. She looked at me with disbelieving, intimidating eyes..
Against my will, I started moving around uneasily in my chair. How could I have had the nerve to say such a thing in her presence!
“What do you mean a good actress?” Anna Libid said forcefully. “She was the best!”.
Anna waved a fat hand at me, dismissing my foolishness.
“Ah, it was the play of a lifetime,” she went on, cooling down from my transgression. “Like no other I have done. There’s never been anything like it.” I could see that Anna was back in a pleasant world of her own ̶ Mother’s world. A comfortable world of similar types. A lovely world. A world of heavy make-up, false mustaches, oversized wigs, fake laughter, long, grand speeches, tears, joy, much applause, lingering bows—the best of all possible worlds. The magic world of imagination and make believe. Anna spoke in a dramatic fashion, as if every word had deep meaning and profound significance, as if she was back on the small stage of the Pushkin Playhouse, with Mother looking on.This was Anna’s evening. I clearly had invoked something in her, and Mrs. Libid held court, almost as if Lucy and I were not even in the room. Only once did she fully direct her conversation toward me.
“I was at your mother’s funeral. God rest her soul! That’s when I saw you in that fabulous looking uniform! You were so tall and handsome, with all those ribbons. You should have seen him Lucy. He could have made you faint. I just looked at you and felt so sorry for you. I wanted to come over and give you a big hug. What you had with your mother was real special. All she did was talk about you. Alex, this! Alex, that! She loved you so much.”I could see out of the corner of my eye that Lucy was becoming interested in what her grandmother was saying. She was lighting candles as we had used our share of electricity for the evening. She stopped what she was doing and stared at me.
“What were you, a sergeant?” she asked.
“Don’t be silly, child,” Anna answered quickly, stopping me before I had a chance to say anything. “He was a big-time officer in the United States Army. A Colonel. Or was it a General? You should have seen all the ribbons, child.
”I laughed softly. I remembered the service, with Mother lying silently, peacefully in her coffin, as the strange-looking priests said words over her. I had showed up in full military dress, in honor of Mother.
Notwithstanding you, and no disrespect intended, Father, but I think my love for the military is in my Russian genes. Military officers were always a big deal in Russia. Mother’s family, as you probably know, came from a long line of high-ranking military officers, or that’s what she told me.
Whatever the case, Mother was so proud of me and loved it when I wore my uniform. She would walk down Brighton Beach Avenue, making her way through the bustling throngs and holding on tightly to my arm, with this pleased look on her face. I knew what that look said, Father.I had just made Major before she died and was now entitled to wear the gold braids on my hat. Anna K. Libid was correct. I cut quite a dashing figure!
Still, I wasn’t no damn Colonel, Father, much less a General!
“Your grandmother is more than generous,” I said to Lucy. “I was only a Major.”
“You know, that reminds me of a play I did on Broadway. I loved Broadway, before those idiots ruined everything! You should have seen Broadway, Lucy, in those days. It was so glamorous. So very glamorous.”Anna Libid continued her endless patter, reliving play after play. She talked and talked. I kept looking at Lucy, and she kept looking at me and pushing more vodka my way. Suddenly, at long last, Anna yawned mightily.
“Oh, I’m so tired,” she said to me in Russian.
“We must get our rest. Rest makes you strong,” I said back to her in Russian.She slowly pulled herself up from the chair. “You stay, Alex. Keep Lucy company. And, you come back, you hear me! We are family.”She quickly disappeared into an inner room, taking her powder and perfume with her.But what a great old lady she turned out to be, Father.
“Would you like another drink” Lucy asked as soon as her grandmother left.I thought for a second. My head was already woozy. I could tell that I was very close to that moment when just a little more booze would push me over the edge into drunkenness.“No. I think I will just finish this.”
All at once an awkward silence settled between us. I stared down at what was left of my watered-down drink and took a small sip. I wanted to extend the life of this drink as long as I could.
“You know, your grandmother told me about what happened to your parents.
”Lucy’s face filled with annoyance. “She did! That old bitch. When did she tell you that! I bet she even told you I am only half-Russian. That I am really Irish. I’m as Russian as she is. Sometimes I could really kill that woman.
”I could hear the anger in her voice. I was amazed at how quickly she could go from pleasant to angry.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I shouldn’t have brought it up. Look, I’ve got to go".
“I still think I should go.”
I wanted to get away from her because I no longer had Anna as a buffer. What could I say to her. Also, I wanted to kiss her.It was the strangest thing, Father. I hadn’t kissed a woman since Gina, and you know how long ago that was! I wanted to press my lips to her little, heart-shaped lips and pull her close to me.As Lucy talked, I heard little of what she was saying because I was looking so hard at her exciting lips.She got my coat and gloves and we stood by her door.
“When do we start our lesson, Alexander?”
“Aaah, I don’t know. When?”
“How about tomorrow?”
“Yes. Why not? Grandmother goes to the senior center for lunch and to gab with her girlfriends. Also, as old as she is, there’s some old guy there she’s trying to fuck. So, come over at one.”The word “fuck,” and the bold way she said it, sent a small shock wave through me.“Are you sure?”
“Of course, I’m sure. Why shouldn’t I be sure?”
The awkward silence between us returned. But, Lucy, as always, made the first move. “Let me give you a hug, Alexander.
”She put her arms around me and hugged me tight. Not the friendly, motherly bear hug that her grandmother had given me, but a passionate, sexual, loving hug.
I put my arms around her. I was so much taller and bigger than she, and she just seemed to melt and disappear in my arms. I felt an overwhelming emotion swelling up in me. Through my heavy overcoat, her body heat was rising, gauge after gauge.
I bent down and kissed her, the way I had wanted to kiss her all night. She returned my kiss with real passion. Tears started running down her face. I hugged her even closer, and Father, tears started running down my face too.
Yes, real live tears, the first tears I had shed since that evening on the Coney Island pier. Both of us shook with emotion, as years of pent-up feelings poured into each other.
It was incredible, Father.
As I walked the short blocks back to 3099, I felt as if a 50-story building had been lifted from my back. Normally, I would have walked the darkest, quietest street, which would have been Brightwater. Instead, this night I decided to walk up to Brighton Beach Avenue.
I was not used to being out so late, although it couldn’t have been more than ten o’clock. In the old days, I would be just getting ready to go out. I noticed things I never noticed before. Despite the freezing night, the avenue was packed with people. The old El creaked nosily overhead. People were still out shopping at the stores; some that still had old signs in Russian. I saw young couples, so full of life, so unconcerned with Clerics and caregivers. I even spotted a pair of those asshole Moral Force guys with those fuck-up-looking hats. I saw several old ladies walking trancelike, unconcerned by others, as unconcerned by others as I once was. I heard loud laughter from a bar on the corner. A young hooker stared me dead in the face and winked at me. I smiled back at the young black woman, who couldn’t have been more than fifteen years old.
As I turned onto my block, I looked up at the dim-lit apartment windows. I saw the shadows of people going about their daily lives, moving from room to room. It was life that I saw, Father. Life!
Maybe that’s all I needed to do, after these years of seeing witch doctors and caregivers and listening to bullshit? Maybe all I needed was a big, warm hug, a passionate kiss, and a good cry to make life reappear?
Isn’t that something, Father?
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