“Meanwhile, Father, I told you that this letter was going to jump all over the place, but back to the beach in Brighton Beach. This young person was actually talking to me, as if she was some kind of friend. I usually look the other way when people talk to me, like most of us with the Manhattan Syndrome. We just didn’t want anyone to get that close to us anymore or invade our private space in any way.
But I looked closely at the young lady. I was sitting on a bench facing the gray ocean, freezing my black Russian ass off! What the fuck I was doing out here in this so-called spring weather is beyond me. But a routine is a routine.
Just like I use to hang out almost every other evening in one of my clubs before the Big Bang, I now sit on a bench in Brighton Beach almost everyday, weather permitting, as part of the routine I have worked out over the years. I sometimes walk the beach, doing my talking to you, Mother, and my old friends. But, sometimes my head is totally empty, with only occasional snatches of old songs, which I hum over and over.
It was that rare day of pure emptiness that I most desired.
I have had two other so-called doctors and numerous caregivers since Dr. Anderson gave up on me and moved back to Chicago. Maybe she was right. She told me just before she left that I just didn’t want any help. I just wanted to spend the rest of my life wallowing in my grief and lost.
But, this was one of those rare days of pure emptiness. Not a thought of caregivers or doctors. Maybe that’s why I was so surprised, even startled by her. Who was this person mentioning Mother’s name, and seeming to know who I was? What was this, Father?
The young woman had a youthful, open face. It was hard to tell, but she looked to be in her late twenties. She wore a black knit cap pulled down around her ears, with strands of blond hair escaping from beneath it.
I could see that she wasn’t beautiful like Mother. In fact, she was rather plain looking. She had the same small blue eyes, but her lips weren’t large, and well shaped like Mother’s. But, she had such a bright, lively, intelligent, happy look on her face. It was a face that showed no fear whatsoever.
Her face also had that oval, Slavic feature which I immediately recognized. I would bet anything she was a full-blooded Russian.
“How do you know who I am?” I asked. I looked at her and quickly looked away.
“I see you all the time. See,” she said, turning and pointing to a building on Brightwater directly in back of us. “I live in that building. 301. Haven’t you seen me before?”
I quickly looked at her and looked away.
I was unable to place her face. To me everybody looked alike these days, even on the warm days when all those heavy coats came off.
“No, I can’t say that I do,” I answered.
She didn’t seemed put off by my answer. “Well I know who you are. My Grandmother told me who you were. I have wanted to come up to you and say hello for a long time. When I look at you when you walk by me, you always look the other way. Grandmother said that I should leave you alone. That you had a lot on your mind. Your mother was soooo very famous, you know. Grandmother starred in that famous version of Uncle Vanya that your mother directed. Grandmother said that all the press came.
“Grandmother has shown me over and over all the pictures of her in the papers with your mother. She said that your mother was a gifted director and actress. That she was the most important actress in Brooklyn. She just should have stayed away from that bad man, who was shot in the street. You should hear my Grandmother talk about your mother. Boy, does she admire that woman!”
My God, Father, this young person just went on, and on, and on, talking to me with such ease, as if we were old, old friends!
I knew she was right about one thing. I knew people saw me over and over again walking the beach. But most of them, thankfully, paid me little mind, except the hookers. I was just one more of those dazed, crazed folks who had survived the Big Bang.
I found myself listening carefully and responding to this young woman. I guess in the back of my mind, this was what I wanted. I guess I really wanted someone to just walk up to me in open friendship, and not be afraid of me, and help pull me out of this shell. This never happened before now, Father. People avoided me, and the shell over the years just hardened.
But here she was, talking away. Talking to me, Father, like I was a trusted old friend. I even smiled openly at how she described Mother.
Now as I write this letter to you, I love the selected memory of older people. That play was so long ago, almost another lifetime. I just had to smile at the thought that Mother was the most “important” actress in all of great big Brooklyn, and was “sooooo famous.”
If I remember it correctly, her fame never spread beyond the small world of Russian speaking immigrants
“Do you remember what role she played?” I asked. I was trying to connect the face of this woman, with the faces of the people I vaguely remembered years ago in that small, little theatre as they went through their paces, with Mother ordering them around the stage in Russian, with her sure, insistent voice.
“Yes, she played Helen,” the young woman answered.
I thought for a moment. Then I suddenly saw her Grandmother clearly in my mind’s eye. Yes, the young Helen. I looked again a little closer at the person sitting on the beach next to me. This had had to be the first time in a long time I have look so closely at anyone in years. Yes, I could see her Grandmother.
I also could see Mother telling her Grandmother in Russian: “You have to feel what this person is feeling. Watch me.”
Mother deftly stepped out of the role as the middle-aged stern, wise Mrs. Voynitsky and started taking over the role of the young 27-year-old Helen.
We all watched Mother, transfixed.
“You see, that’s how it’s played,” she said gently to the young woman. “Try it like that.”
“I think I remember her,” I said to the young woman. I felt a level of enthusiasm rising in me. This was bringing back an unsuspected surge of old, pleasant memories. I quickly pushed the feeling away.
“You do!” she said with delight.
“Yes,” I said. “I can see her. I can see her walking across the stage. Yes, I know who she is.”
Before she could ask me another question, I asked her one. “Do you still live with your Grandmother?” I didn’t know what else to ask her, but for some reason I wanted to continue talking with her.
“Yes, yes. She’s old now. All she really wants is to go back to Russia and die.” For the first time I saw her face filled with sadness.
“Ah, to die in Russia! What an honor that would be; I think I understand,” I said to her softly in Russian, not sure if she understood the language, but really not caring if she did, or not. The words just came from me spontaneously.
She looked at me with total surprise registering on her young face.
“You speak Russian! I speak Russian too. Well I really don’t speak Russian, but you know what I mean. Have you been to Russia?” she asked with youthful eagerness.
“No. Mother taught me Russian. That’s mostly what we spoke,” I said to her in English. “But I wish I had visited mother Russia. How much I wish. America stinks.”
I now knew she felt the bitterness in my voice. This is the main reason why I avoided people. I knew that I had in me so much bitterness that I didn’t want anyone else to experience what I felt inside.
She nodded her head in agreement. “Things don’t look good, that’s for sure. We just have to do something about it, don’t we? We just can’t let those people win, can we?”
It was interesting, Father. It was the subtle change in her demeanor I noticed first. She wasn’t asking a question, she was making a statement! That’s when I first saw that flash of toughness. Twenty years in the military had taught me to recognize that look, that tone of voice. That was the tone and look of a warrior!
Still, I didn’t know what the hell she was talking about. Who were “those people,” and who was going to do something about it? But the way she said what she said was so direct, so to the point that I took notice, and became even more interested in her.
Suddenly, she took off her right glove and reached out her hand. “I’m Lucy.”
I almost laughed, Father. Only a person so young would do something like that.
I took off my right glove and took her hand and shook it up and down lightly. “Alexander. Alexander Pushkin Litvinova.” I gave her my full name because Mother said it was an Old World Russian custom.
“It’s good to know you,” I said to her in Russian.
Now I was showing off a little, which surprised me. I didn’t know I had any show off left in me.
She thought for a moment, still holding on to my hand. I could see she was trying to find the right words in Russian.
Finally, she started pumping my hand up and down again, smiling widely, displaying small teeth much like Mother’s, and saying in broken Russian “Know you is good to know.”
Father, I know that you can fully appreciate this rare moment of history repeating itself, and smile a little smile of recognition. All at once this Lucy person reminded me of Mother. Mother could never quite get her English right. You captured it perfectly in your famous short story, “The Queen of Macy’s.”
Now it was Lucy who couldn’t get her Russian right! But it didn’t matter, just as it must have not mattered to you, Father. You knew what Mother meant, just as I now knew what Lucy meant, although it didn’t quite come out the way it should have.
We both put our gloves back on. I didn’t laugh, or smile at Lucy’s mistake, although it was clear that she didn’t speak much Russian.
“You know what? You should come over and meet my Grandmother. You are one of the few people around here who can still speak Russian.” Her voice was filled with excitement and decisiveness.
“Come over to your place?” I asked. I could feel my voice shake slightly. I know now how my voice must have sounded, Father. This person was inviting me over to her apartment. Me, the mad black Russian who walked Brighton Beach, often unshaven, withdrawn, spooky looking, ghost-like, often talking aloud to unseen sprits long since passed.
“Oh, come on! I know you live near by,” she said, clearly not willing to take no for an answer. “I want you to meet Grandmother. And,” she said, phasing. “I want you to teach me Russian.”
“Me? Teach you Russian? Are you serious?”
“Yeah, yeah,” she answered excitedly, jumping up and down on the park bench like a young teenager. “Can you write in Russian?”
“A little. Not much.”
“Oh, that’s ok. All I want to do is learn to speak it. Oh, this is going to be soooo exciting. It is a date, Alexander?”
“Ah, you can call me Alex.”
“No,” she said. “I like Alexander better. It has force to it. It’s a great name. So, is it a date, Alexander?”
Once again, Father, she was decisive and to the point.
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