The Girl Who Needed Glasses
There were four of us who arrived in Russia together; Gerald, Hazel, Eugene and I. We arrived in Moscow as most Americans do, dead tired and unprepared for the seemingly eternal phalanx of forms and uniforms one must pass through to enter the Mother Country. Time is already distorted for someone who has just flown half-way around the world, and the bureaucracy guarding the gates of Sheremtyevo airport managed to bring it nearly to a stop. We managed, though, to crawl into the outer terminal and shuffle through the gauntlet of taxi drivers wishing to take us to their favorite hotels, seeking doors leading to a larger world, where, we fantasized, some semblance of public transport might whisk us off to where we could realize we were in Russia, and not on the set of an old James Bond film.
As we approached freedom, a tall, slender young woman in an ankle-length, dark brown coat said to us in English, “Will you need a translator in Russia?”
Gerald, our erstwhile point man, and impolite at best, growled, “Nyet.”
She flinched and squinted past him, but none of the rest of us were willing to speak past Gerald, though I was all for saying “Da!,” so I could ask her to tell one of the taxi drivers to take us to our hotel, where I could fall into a bed and sleep, perchance to dream that I would wake and find that time had started once again. Instead, we crept past her, dragging our worldly possessions behind us in hard-shelled luggage.
Excepting Eugene and I, the four of us had not known one another before sitting in O’Hare together for a few hours waiting for the flight to Frankfurt. We recognized each other as fellow travelers from the initial flight to Chicago, and being humans, had struck up conversations, finally figuring out we shared the same travel agent, and our itineraries were remarkably similar.
All of us managed to make it to the Hotel Rossiya, where our room was supposed to face the Kremlin and St. Basil’s Cathedral. I count my blessings that one of the clerks spoke English, or we would have spent our few days in a room overlooking the gray inner court of the hotel, full of trees without leaves and a pool that was empty for the season.
“We” are the Brothers Marrikosov, on adventure in Russia. In private moments we engage in the age-old practice of children, pretending we are someone else for the sake of play. On the golf course, we are Spooner and Wedgie, the famous MacMarritt brothers of Scotland, but really we are just Stan and Eugene Marritt of upstate Idaho.
Eugene’s wife let him out on a long leash for this trip after I made promises about his continuing welfare. He has kids to finish raising.
I am not so blessed. My better half is yet to be found. Hope dies hard, and at 50, I still believe in miracles, but my hope for that particular miracle is faded and tattered by time.
Hazel Blair looks like our Mom, rotund, gray, lightly wrinkled. While our real mother is home raking the lawn, Hazel’s hobby is to travel the world: India, Pakistan, China, Viet Nam, and now Russia. She is 75, a good tourist, happy with what she finds on the table.
Our room included breakfast, a Russian brunch featuring what my grandpa might have called dinner: carrot salad, cole slaw, green beans, boiled potatoes, baked fish, hard salami, cheese, hard-boiled eggs, roast pork, pastries, blintzes and coffee that could etch porcelain. We country boys dug right in the first morning and Hazel joined us. We were nearly done when Gerald waltzed in.
I was resigned to suffer in silence, but Eugene muttered “Damn.”
“We are all God’s children,” Hazel said, without looking up from her blintzes, and we knew we had been adopted.
Gerald Simpson is a big man who carries himself like John Wayne, dancing on small feet with some unseen partner, leading clumsily. Why he decided to come to Russia, I didn’t know, because Gerald had no love for travel, Russia or himself. He only loved his image, I think. He fancied himself a cowboy, and West was best. He wore high-heeled boots and he would have worn the hat to go with them, except that cowboys wear bill caps, now. His said “Martini Ranch, Scottsdale,” and stuck to his head in all situations, except at table. His mama hadn’t wasted all her time.
Gerald looked over the buffet line and at his watch and even outside to see where the sun was in the sky, not apparent on a gray March day. He asked the cashier, “Did I miss breakfast?”
“This is breakfast.” She smiled at him with intense good will, and threw a graceful arm at the array on the tables.
Gerald clouded up and picked his way through the food, building a meal of eggs, blintzes, potatoes, bread, allowing nothing foreign to his idea of breakfast on his plate. At the table, he looked at me mopping up the last of my carrot salad. Clearly, in Gerald’s opinion, I was insane.
“How can you stomach carrots for breakfast?”
“Mmm, mmm,” I intoned, and got up to go for more etching solution.
Eugene joined me. “We can’t spend the day with this guy. I’ll kill him.”
I held out my coffee cup. “Give him a third cup of this.”
Eugene and I are baby boomers, born in the ‘50s, raised in the ‘60s, corrupted beyond redemption in the ‘70s, yet somehow redeemed in the ‘90s – Eugene, by the Blood of the Lamb, and me, by grace of the resident God of this Universe.
Gerald could be a tolerable neighbor at home, but in Russia, he’s like a mirror held up by our culture, and we don’t like looking into it.
We plotted our escape, but to no avail. As rude as Americans can be, we are not good at being brutally honest, especially with each other, and so it was four who walked across the black stone cobbles of Red Square, and sought to take a tour of the Kremlin.
At the kiosk selling admission we merged with a whirl of children, teachers and other pilgrims; hawkers of rabbit-skin Army hats and Russian stamps; and a medley of guides. And there, at the edge of the crowd, was the tall, slender woman in the dark brown, ankle-length coat.
She held back until her eyes settled on us. If she recognized us, it didn’t show, but she made her way to our little clutch, huddled with our tickets and absolutely no clue where to redeem them. Pilgrims, indeed.
“Do you need a guide today?”
“Da,” I said, and garnered a dirty look from Gerald. The others didn’t remember her. I would have recognized her anyway, but it was confirmed by her squint.
“My treat.” I said.
She told me her fee, and her eyes widened when I offered her a 50 ruble bonus for tolerating us. I was intent on keeping the reputation of America out of the gutter.
“We are here to solve the economic woes of your country,” I said.
She went back to the squint. “All by yourselves?”
“Da,” I said.
She laughed. “This is a start.”
We had acquired the right guide.
She was Olya Rostonova, and she seemed of a somewhat formal nature so I gave her my formal name, which I have hated since the girls called me “manly Stanley” in the second grade. Eugene’s eyebrows took off toward his receding hairline, which caused me to shoot him a dirty look, which made him grin and Olya smile. She was on to us, the Brothers Marrikosov, and that was good to know.
Gerald’s self-introduction was grudgingly given, and I wondered if his middle name might be Homer.
Her English was perfect, with an accent softened by youth and a sense of diffidence that she wore like perfume. She did not stand quite erect, so she carried her head tilted back a little, bringing her chin out even with the end of her nose and giving the impression that she was sighting down its length. Her smile revealed one dimple, left side, same elevation as the corner of her mouth, wide and full. Her eyes, soft, butternut brown and close together, were set deep under her brow and protected by high cheek bones. They seemed to arrive on target a quarter of a moment after they were expected, as if she was dreaming deep inside of solving some great conundrum while the top of her brain was taking care of everyday living. They came to focus laden with patience and a secret sense of humor, punctuated, time and again, by that squint.
I guessed on our walk to the Kremlin gate that Olya needed glasses.
With Olya’s kind guidance, we got my money’s worth, though we suffered a near tantrum when Gerald found they did not allow cameras, not even his, into the display of the treasures of Russia. Patient Olya explained to him that his next option was to be escorted out by three soldiers who had gathered to listen to him wail about injustice, and that none of the soldiers spoke English.
He insisted the massive diamond in Catherine the Great’s scepter could not be real. Olya laughed. “We have very good glass cutters in Russia, Mr. Zherald, but not that good.”
In the end, as we left the Kremlin through the gate in the West wall, he doubted aloud that the cannon barrels stacked along the Arsenal’s walls were captured from Napoleon.
“Everyone knows Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo,” he said.
“And everyone knows Waterloo is in Iowa,” Eugene said in my ear.
Olya squinted at him, and her diffidence left her. “Why did you come to Russia, Mr. Zherald?”
“If it’s any of your business, I was curious about what it was like.”
“Curiosity is a good thing, Mr. Zherald. It leads us to learn things we don’t know.”
“What in hell does that mean?”
Mother Hazel jumped in. “Gerald, you’re a guest here, and that was rude. Apologize to Olya.”
“For what? Doubting her version of history? I’m tired of the tripe she’s feeding us.”
“Simpson, that’s enough. Behave yourself or go away.” I looked around to see who had said that, and everyone was staring at me
He took the second option.
It was a quiet party that left the Kremlin. Finally, my brother said, “I’m sorry, Miss Olya.”
“There is no need, Mr. You-zheen. Mr. Zherald came here to be angry, but I think he is a good guy.”
“He’s a blowhard.” I was still steaming.
“Now, Mr. Stanley, you are being rude.”
Properly chastised, I shut up.
I paid Olya her fee, plus the 50 rubles. I had just had my feelings hurt, so I could just say “thank you” as Eugene fended off the vendors selling hats and Russian stamp collections.
“You must tell them, ‘Nyet, spaceebo,’ Mr. You-zheen. ‘No, thank you.’”
“Da,” said Eugene, “OK.”
We turned to go, and Olya put her hand on my arm.
It was the first time I noticed how fine the texture of her skin was, accented now by two points of color high on her cheeks.
“Thank you, Mr. Stanley, for coming to my defense, and for helping my country’s economy.”
We were nearly back to the hotel before Eugene said, in a high, accented voice, “Thank you, Mr. Stanley.”
This caused Hazel to smile.
I growled, “Go to hell, You-zheen,” but I was grinning, nonetheless.
There were four of us who arrived in Russia togehter, but now we were three. Gerald did not appear at breakfast on our second morning, and none of us was really surprised.
“He’s off in search of a good American breakfast,” Eugene joked, “at McDonald’s.”
“I wonder if we shouldn’t check on him,” I said. Eugene gave me the look he gave me when I used to “mother” him and our other brother on the bus to school.
Hazel did not look up. “He’s full grown … though he hasn’t acted it, yet.”
This was the most judgmental thing Hazel ever said in our presence, but she was right.
We finished breakfast and arranged to meet in the lobby. Back in the room, Eugene pulled open the window for a clear photo of the Kremlin. The peals of bells rolled to us from across the River Moskva and down Red Square and out of the Kremlin itself, and we remembered it was Sunday. It struck me odd that the Soviet State, in its effort to kill religion in Russia, could not tear down the churches in its very heart.
I left Eugene to his photo and went to the lobby. I was waiting there when Olya walked in. I argued with myself about approaching her as she went to the desk. She was directed to a phone, which she picked up and dialed.
She is meeting a client, I thought, and it is none of my business.
She hung up without speaking, and squinted around the room. When she saw me, she showed her dimple.
“Good morning. Were you trying to call us?”
She blushed. “There was no answer. I am glad to see you. Will you be needing a translator or guide today?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“You will hire me?”
“I thought you would. You, too, are a ‘good guy,’ Mr. Stanley.”
“Where did you learn the idiom, ‘good guy?’”
“You have a good ear. In America, seven years ago, I was an exchange student in Ohio.”
Quick math told me she was about 24. I am old enough to be … I stopped the thought.
“What is the idiom, ‘my treat?’” Her eyes arrived on the first syllable of ‘idiom.’
“It means, ‘I will pay.’ No, more accurately, ‘This is my gift to you.’”
“It is a good idiom.”
There are times in a life when we meet someone the Spanish might term “sympatico,” a new friend who already has a place in our heart, a spot especially prepared by Whoever makes us that nearly exactly fits this stranger who wanders into our life. The fit is always comfortable from the beginning … or comforting, anyway. It has to do with commonality of thinking, complimentary ideals, mutual attraction. There is the feeling that whoever this person is, if we were both three years old on a playground, we would become inseparable, be friends for life. Such was this moment with Olya. At least for me.
Before I could dwell on that too long, Hazel and Eugene arrived, converging on us from separate elevators. Hazel was very pleased to see Olya. Eugene gave me his best bug-eye look.
Olya asked what we would like to see.
“I would very much like to go to church,” said Hazel.
That is how we came to be in the Cathedral of the Kazan Icon of the Blessed Virgin, a tiny, pink Orthodox church with a big name, tucked into the northwest corner of Red Square. We stood in the outer court as Olya told its history: built by Prince Dmitry Pozharsky to commemorate a victory over Polish and Lithuanian invaders sometime before 1625; burned, and rebuilt at the order of the Czar using bricks from the Kremlin; consecrated in 1636.
“In 1918, the Cathedral was shut down.” Olya looked around her, and her voice grew softer, as if she wished not to wake the ghosts living in the place. “An architect, Peter Baranovsky started to restore it in 1928, but the Soviets stopped him and exiled him. In 1936, they began to tear the church down, and Baranovsky, returned from exile, and not allowed to live in Moscow, came every day to Moscow from Alexandrovo to measure the Cathedral in the process of its destruction.”
She turned back to us with a small, sad smile. ”He was exiled again. and the Cathedral was destroyed.”
“But,” she said, and her face brightened, “when the decision was made in 1988 to rebuild the Cathedral, it was Baranovsky’s plan they followed. As you can see, it has been restored, as many churches are being restored.”
She bought us each a candle from the booth in the outer court, brown bees’ wax to light and place before the icon of our choice.
“My treat,” she whispered when she handed one to me, and then she led us into a small sanctuary with no pews and windows high in the walls.
It seemed to me that this room could not be less than two decades old, that it must somehow be the original, that it had somehow waited here in hiding, as faith did when Lenin and Stalin tried to root it out of the people; or that the Soviets had tried to tear it down and found they couldn’t and had just had to pretend it was gone. From the ceiling and all the walls, saints and the Savior looked down on us with large, luminous eyes. The hue of the room was golden, and the dome in the ceiling seemed to gather all sound, reducing even the scuffling of shoes and unconscious coughs to quiet noises of respect. The candles of supplicants provided as much light as the windows, and their smoke gathered with the quiet in the dome, showing sunlight’s way into the room.
The focus of the room was a wall of gold and red and blue icons with three doors in it, through one of which the priests soon appeared and service began. When it did, Olya fell away from us, it seemed, for she knew the liturgy and moved into it without us, crossing herself and bowing slightly to the wall of icons, moving with the others who knew this dance, keeping rhythm with the voices from both sides of the wall. Chants of priests segued into hymns and hymns into chants and incense smoked in the jingling censor swung by one of the men in silver and purple robes. Supplicants and the grateful approached the candleholders and lit their prayers from the prayers of others. Priests came and went through the two doors in the wall on each side of the central door which finally opened, and stayed that way a while, so we mortals could look for a few minutes into Heaven.
That is what the Orthodox believe, that the room behind the wall of icons is God’s realm, and only the priests can enter. To me, though, standing in a melange of sound and sight and smell now for three-quarters of an hour, the door appeared to be a mirror. Smoke in the air and the gilt frame around the opening gave it the appearance of a reflective surface, even though I could see priests moving in the room beyond the wall, back in God’s realm, where only they could go.
This idea transfixed me. Everything else, everyone else, faded into the sound of the choir answering the priests answering the choir, and I stood quite still, breathing the sweet sandalwood smoke for a long, long time, until the priests covered the mirror and closed the door to Heaven once more.
When it closed, I came to myself, and standing to my right, lighting a candle in front of the crucified Christ was Gerald, hat in his hand, tears running down his face.
Olya had seen him too, and it was with an unexpected pang of jealousy that I watched her move to his side. She whispered something to him, and I saw his startled look. He would have run, but there was nowhere to go. He looked back to the icon, and his shoulders shuddered. Olya put her hand on his arm, and a big, rough hand came and covered hers for a moment, and then the moment was over. Olya turned to me with that familiar look and smiled. Her eyes were luminous, too, and I knew the light was for God and for Gerald and especially for me and I was no longer jealous.
Rain had begun when the four of us walked back into Red Square. Olya led us into the old State department store, G.U.M., and we silently sought out a coffee shop. When we had ordered, Eugene asked the question.
“What was Gerald doing there?”
Olya did not look at him when she answered, but at me. “Learning why he came to Russia.”
“Why did he come to Russia?”
“I don’t know,” she said, “but I think now he does.”
At the end of our day, I asked if she would come again tomorrow. She could not, but she was able to come on Wednesday, if I wished. I wished.
She blushed when she said to me, “I am glad you wish,” and then she was gone.
Hazel said, just before we parted for the night. “I think Wednesday might be good for a private tour of Moscow. I’m sure Eugene and I can find something to do. Yes, Eugene?”
“Da.” Eugene was turning into quite a linguist.
He grinned as we rode the elevator to the seventh floor.
“Knock it off,” I said. “She’s about 24, for crying out loud.”
For once, he had no retort, but he did not stop grinning.
We saw Gerald once more. Tuesday morning, he came by our table, and we were an awkward bunch, all of us wanting to say something, but not knowing what. Hazel invited him to sit, but he declined. “I’m fine by myself, right now,” he said. “Need to be.” He began to leave, and then stopped. “Sorry for being such a bastard the other day.”
As he walked away, I noticed that he was not dancing. On his plate was carrot salad, coleslaw, hard salami, roast pork and some of the baked fish.
Hazel did not look up from her plate when she said, “Wonders never cease.”
“Amen,” said Eugene.
Wednesday came slowly, but when it did, I found Olya waiting in the lobby, as promised. She did not ask about the others.
“Where would you like to go today?”
“Wherever you take me, as long as we can take a walk sometime, along the river.”
“We will go to the river later, then.”
“How much shall we improve the economy of your country today?”
She looked me full in the face. “Today is my treat.”
“All right … on one condition.”
“What is that?”
“That I may buy you a pair of glasses.”
“How do you know?” she said.
I squinted at her. She laughed very hard.
“It is not necessary,” she said.
“Yes, it is,” I said.
There are places in Moscow where one can order and receive a pair of glasses in two hours. She picked, after minutes of agonizing, a practical pair that did not show off her eyes as well as I would have liked. “These will be hard to break,” she said. That left much of the day to see what she had to show me; to ride the Metro, just because I loved to ride it; to walk Leninsky Prospekt; to eat at Yolky-Palky, to go back to the little church with the big name, to light candles for Gerald and other, secret prayers.
And then, we went to walk along the river across from Gorky Park. We talked about important things. She has two dogs. She has a “real” job at a bank. Her mother lives in St. Petersburg. Her brother works for Aeroflot. She has an uncle who is an ophthalmologist, which I laughed when she said, but he lives in Volgograd.
“Have you been Orthodox always?”
“I am not Orthodox now. I go to the Anglican Church. My mother is Orthodox, and I went to Orthodox Church when I was young, as soon as we were allowed.”
“You are still young.”
“I am already 23,” she said.
I laughed. “I am already 50.”
She changed the subject. “What do you think of the Orthodox service?”
I told her about the door into Heaven, how it looked like a mirror to me and enchanted me, how it was when it closed that I noticed Gerald.
“What did it reflect?” she asked.
“Something we cannot understand,” I said.
We walked in silence for a time.
“I saw him again, you know.”
I felt myself get very quiet. “When?”
“Monday. He, too, wanted to buy me a pair of glasses.”
“What did you tell him?”
“That it was not necessary.”
“He didn’t argue?”
She smiled. “He is not as persuasive as you, Mr. Stanley.”
Her eyes arrived with the word “you.” My age fled me. I felt awkward and foolish as a 15-year-old.
Upstream a mile was a cathedral on the other side of the river.
“Let’s walk to there,” she said, “and our day will be complete.”
We began along the sidewalk atop the concrete wall that holds the river in place, and walked until we came to a construction project enclosed by blue corrugated metal, an ugly thing. There was a sign on it and I asked what it said.
“Walk on the other side.”
There was no place to cross the street, and it was enough to dissuade us. We began the other way. A half mile downstream, I stopped.
“We have not made our day complete.”
She understood, and looked back at the church. “We were too easily daunted.”
“Daunted. That is a good word.”
“A convenient word, not good.”
“Do you suppose we could get around something like that?”
“If we wanted to. Da.”
“Then why aren’t we walking the other way.”
“Perhaps we will make our day complete another day.”
We walked a while, still away from the church.
“Do you know why Zherald came to Russia?” she suddenly asked
“His mother and father were from Russia.”
“No,” she said, and sighed, as if there was some deep secret in the word.
“How did he get to America?”
She stopped and leaned on the wall, arms stiff, hands flat on the top of the wall, pointed out. She stared across the river, looking through her new lenses.
“These are good glasses,” she said.
I leaned against the wall beside her, facing the other way, looking at the stately blocks of Stalin-built apartments.
“His father was a Soviet officer in East Berlin. He and Zherald’s mother became disenchanted with the Soviet system. Just before they began to build the wall, they sent their son to the West with a German housekeeper.
“It was their plan to follow, but they never came. Zherald was two and the housekeeper left him in an orphanage in West Berlin, where he was adopted by an American colonel to keep him from being returned to the East. Zherald did not remember what happened, for a long time, but he found out seven years ago he was adopted, and how. Then, he began looking for his parents.”
“What happened to them?”
“It took some time and money, but he found out someone betrayed his parents to his father’s commander. His mother disappeared, probably to Siberia. His father was shot as a traitor.”
I didn’t say anything for a long time, and when I did, it was one word.
I turned and looked across at Gorky Park, where the late sun shone on the tops of the trees. Olya stood up straight and crossed her arms in front of her. Soon, we would have to go in. I could tell by how she held herself that she was getting cold.
“You speak God’s name,” she said. “Tell Him what you want.”
I laughed. “God knows what I want.”
She did not understand the idiom. “Do you think you can have it?”
I knew what I wanted right then, but I didn’t think it possible. Nonetheless, I said, “Miracles happen.”
“You don’t sound like you believe.”
“There are many construction projects in the world, Olya.”
“Yes,” she said, “but they are not all like that one that daunted us. Some of them are rebuilding cathedrals.”
And then, as if she had suddenly found the answer to that conundrum she dreamed of solving, she said, “Oh!” and began to laugh.
“Come with me,” she said, and led the way down the sidewalk.
Olya has long legs, and I was pressed to keep up. Soon, she turned inland. I paced her through the courtyards of apartment buildings toward the city center. We turned up a street and she strode along until she came to a building with a glass front. Across the street was a construction project, an Orthodox cathedral being rebuilt. Inside, a reflecting pool covered much of the first floor lobby.
“Come stand by me,” she said. All diffidence had left her. “Look in the window. What do you see?”
“I see a pool.” I was mystified.
“Look in the mirror, Stanley. Look like you looked at the door into Heaven.”
As she said it, I saw it. In the window, the spires of an Orthodox church towered over two people standing on the surface of the pool. I stared for a minute, and then began to laugh.
I turned to Olya and bowed and held out my hand. She understood, and the couple in the window began to dance on the water, a waltz with no music, just our own synchronicity, plenty enough to keep us in good time. We were laughing, trying to watch ourselves waltz on water and not trip over each other. Then, we were looking only at each other and our arms seemed to grow shorter with each set of steps. The waltz grew slower until we came to a stop.
The people on the sidewalk around us thought we were crazy, I’m sure, and they were not alone. We, too, thought in that moment we might be insane, but we did not let go of one another at the end of the dance. We stood looking at ourselves in the reflection, the couple who could dance on water.
Olya’s head rested against my shoulder, and I knew that if there was no other manifestation of our affection for each other than this one moment, it would be enough; that this memory would last in me as long as the memory of the cathedrals has lasted in Russia.
“You see,” Olya said, “a miracle.”
“Yes. Something we cannot understand.”
“Da. And we should not be daunted by what we don’t understand.”
There were four of us who went to Russia. Some of us learned to see differently there, from the girl who needed glasses.