In the dog realm, she thinks of her classmate as a white Russian borzoi wolfhound: high-float walk, horizon eyes, gracious temper until a first glimpse of wolf crosses his sights. Then he’s gone, snowstreak to the distance.
As dog breeds go she’d be more of a collie from some Albert Payson Terhune bedtime story; counting noses, nudging heels, hovering the flock safe home to Sunnybank. In human terms she’s 19 in 1976, sitting at a desk adorned with names in hearts & arrows. Her own business, if only she were minding it, is a page of Russkii iazyk by I. Pul’kina and E. Zakhava-Nekrasova. But as secondary-imperfective verbs process across the blackboard, her attention sidewinds to a beam of September sun. It comes a little later every day, shafting through the chalk motes to strike the tossable sweep of hair of her classmate near the window. She wonders what color just describes his quality of blond, when gold is kindled past itself to something precious, halfway back to silver.
Up front, the Chair of the Department is all timing and grace: high boots, long skirt of charcoal wool, black turtleneck, Pavlov Posad flowered shawl with cloisonne brooch. The Chair points the chalk and springs a question at the sungazing co-ed. (Shall we give the girl a name? Cleo, perhaps. Wasn’t that Pinocchio’s goldfish?) Cleo snaps to attention, one beat too late for her cue. To her chagrin the question bounces elsewhere to elsewhom as a kindly mirth zephyrs through the students. She ducks behind her text in case the brightly backlit borzoi neighbor should be watching. But unlike her he scans the board, flipping his pencil end over end, turns a page.
That’s his mindset every morning. They all gather before class “to storm Berlin” — to wait for German I to surrender the room. The classmates jostle in high spirits, chatting about grammar assignments or plans for the weekend. But he drops his worn green knapsack on the hallway floor, sits cross-legged in jeans and denim jacket, flips open his textbook and the lid of his coffee. His stillness is not mere indulgence with the bantering and fun; it’s a separate plane of communion with his book, and the language transmitted in each page.
It came as no surprise that in the end, at the graduation awards assembly, the moderators called him on stage over and over as his accomplishments came home to roost. Time after time he left his family to climb the steps and trek across to the podium, until many jocular catcalls suggested that they leave a chair on stage for him. (Cleo’s mom tapped his name on the program. “Remember this young man,” she said. “Remember his name. We’re going to hear of him again some day.”) His peers roared with delight at his harvest of triumph. Cleo bit her nails, fretting at the sudden idea that if people praise a comrade loudly enough, they may forget to notice what the comrade is going through, or what he might need. But they all knew one thing: given the choice tonight, he’d just as soon go catch a smoke in the courtyard and smuggle his coffee in to the language lab for a quiet evening.
That low-key demeanor meandered through his droll anecdotes, mostly at his own expense. Once he told about a mountain camping trip, where he and his friends enjoyed the sunset with their transistor radio playing a bucolic John Denver tune. Then, a camper at another site lost control of a supper fire. In a flash everyone’s equipment and belongings were engulfed as the mountain burned. Amid the flames, the radio played cheerfully while campers ran for their lives. The DSM-II, he concluded, awarded them their own entry: fear of the words “Sunshine on My Shoulder (Makes Me Happy).”
In his serene lack of self-concern he often stayed at the library until the wee hours, missing dinners at the cafeteria. He took his smoking breaks in his open denim jacket in the language building courtyard. He’d light up there and sky-gaze, sitting on a snowy wall beside some devotional statue or other that lingers in memory as injured in some way. (Madonna sans halo? Child without hands?) He was equally assiduous even at home; in a blizzard when the furnace failed in his group apartment, his roommates retreated to their respective beds to conserve heat. They reported later that he opened and lit the gas stove and studied on the floor, smacking at cockroaches fleeing their own tiny campsite. He shrugged off his hoarse sore throats and common colds until a genteel cough became walking pneumonia, landing him a little sojourn at the university medical center across town. There he was soon presiding at a bedside salon of friends and a morning round of medical providers. As they bustled about with his vital signs he gazed at the ceiling, wistfully proposing new hospital protocols on blood tests, monitor signal volume, pressure cuffs, stethoscope temperature and bed baths, all to ensure patients a more sleepless, uncomfortable, and embarrassing stay.
The scene had one witness who never confessed. His admiring classroom neighbor had heard that he was ill. Cleo showed up on the ward to see what he needed — language tapes or soup or just a hello. The hospital seemed huge to her. Peering myopically at room numbers, flattening up against the wall for rushing gurneys, puzzled by loudspeaker codes and lights and alarms and balloon bouquets, she lost her bearings and could find no one with leisure to assist. Then in the commotion a signal reached her: an undertone of silk that she knew right away as the timbre of his voice. Step by step, winding through the nursing stations and the noise, she lost and caught and lost it again until it set her straight and she homed in. Slowly the features of his speech caught her ear: crisp consonants, fully rounded vowels, softness and languor with a wry hint of drawl, a combination she’d imagine from the Scarlet Pimpernel. At last she found the place and peered in. His monologue had the attending physician and residents laughing, hands raised in surrender at his opinions, roped & throwed in their own corral. But what caught her eye was an alabaster quality in his fatigue; for a cold to send him here, he must have been rundown and overstrung for quite some time. It made her want to turn them all out and block the door so he could get some sleep. But she also sensed that he didn’t want solicitude, and that hers was out of line here. She has no memory of ever entering the room or saying hello. She does remember retreating to a waiting room alcove behind a tank of angelfish for fervent prayers of intercession and a quiet cry. Finally she looked up and saw on the wall a splendid photograph of the Peter and Paul Fortress Cathedral at sunset on the Neva River. She took this as an omen that he was going to be just fine. She left him in peace with his visitors, and went home. Soon he was back in class, cheerful as ever. She went back to the hospital to ask where one could buy a Fortress Cathedral photo like theirs. But the poster was gone, leaving only a less sun-faded square on the wall. The head nurse and information desk agreed that their Arts committee did not go in for Soviet landmarks, and no such view of Peter & Paul had ever hung on their walls. Only the angelfish know.
In the winter the campus held a Carnaval do Brasil, a gala so large and festive that even the Eastern Bloc cohorts were all going. The girls at the campus Russian House invited “Cleochka” to come back home with them after and spend the night on their sofa, so she could stay out until all hours. The girls fluffed her hair, and touched her up with some lipstick and eyeshadow. Off they went.
She followed them through the cafeteria door, where all the movable walls had been folded away to make room. It was a vast echoing darkness of sweating walls, vibrating floor, pulsing lights, packed crowd in bared skin and feathers and masks, and the deafening rhythms of a genuine ensemble of Brazilian samba. Cleo was swept yon & hither by ecstatic young people in a winding conga bunny-hop. In that level of eyestrain and overwhelm her wits and memory blanked out, leaving her with no recollection of the evening at all except for one detail. At one point, still gripping her knapsack, she washed up hard against a table and was stopped by a firm palm at her back. The head of the class himself turned her around, seated her sideways right on his knee, and went on talking to his friends. Just as if she’d always been there.
Cleo’s predicament at Carnaval calls to mind a conference several months after September 11th of 2001, when my supervisor and I were obliged to travel to Washington, D.C. She was kind enough to treat me to the picturesque ice rink at the National Gallery of Art. She laced my skates properly for me, then coached and guided as I inched along gripping the rail. At last she heartened me with the battle cry “Are you gonna make me feel guilty for dragging your sorry butt out on this ice?” With that encouragement I resolved: forge ahead, but tuck and roll at the first sign of falling. After that it was a thrilling time, half of it upright on skates and the other half shooting across the ice on my back. In the center, a group of men in good suits skated in a circle, carrying on a grave conversation in murmured Arabic. Every three minutes I plowed into them supine with my arms and legs waving in air. Each time as the men went on talking, one or the other would scoop me up and with a little pat send me on my way.
That’s how it was for Cleo in her Brazil experience, when a gentlemanly right action at the right moment on a steady lap grounded a young person who couldn’t make her way. Now, a boy with a personal interest would have given her a sip of his sangria, or a dance, or some banter, or a chair, or the rest of his lap. But no; once he had her settled he went on talking to his friends, coolly shooting down historical and script-direction flaws plaguing Glenda Jackson as Elizabeth the First. He proposed an improved dialogue between the political figures in her retinue, switching accents and voices in a deadpan rendition that left his listeners pounding the table in hyperventilation. (Who could notice a samba school flown in specially from Brazil, when the Queen of England is holding court with a styrofoam cup scepter?) Cleo sat in rapture at this amazing turn of fortune, half breathing, balancing her weight on her toes, afraid she was too heavy for him. When the girlfriends called it time to go, he gave her a fleeting kindly smile and set her on her feet with a consoling little back pat.
On Russian Night, the great hall was a happy madhouse of excitement for the talent show and party. The language club students careened through the halls with shopping carts of Busy Baker crackers and cheese, pirozhki, green punch, and “Odessa” discount vodka. The stars of the show polished comedy skits in the courtyard, hustled props backstage, and altered costumes with staples and tape. Soviet dignitaries put in an appearance, keeping to themselves and checking their watches until they could call it a night. Then, there was a surprise in the program. Our unofficial valedictorian took the stage for a solo with a Russian House girl on backup alto, for the World War II ballad Ekh, Dorogi! or “Ah, You Roads!” (Here’s a recording, with vocalist Oleg Pogudin: Олег Погудин Эх, дороги ) At the opening notes the ruckus in the great hall crashed to silence. The audience caught their breaths and slid to the edge of their seats. The standing-room bystanders hustled to the front. From the wings, even the Soviet dignitaries could be seen shouldering in to the edge of the stage to gaze up through the lights. What riveted them was not only two pure voices aloft or two luminous faces (she had a laughing heart and laughing eyes, and as it happened died very young). What struck them then, and strikes harder now, was a performer who was simply singing his thoughts to his companion without performing at all, as if the public were not there. When the song ended no one moved. Seconds of silence ticked by before the audience kicked the roof off the house.
Half the Blocmates went on summer abroad in Leningrad, to a dorm outside the Peter-Paul Fortress. Cleo rarely saw her seat neighbor now; he placed in the top class, and she placed in one near the bottom. But he sat in front of her on the bus traveling into Novgorod. The bus entered a bustling market square of customers and vendors. From the raised seat view, the women on the ground formed a crowded procession of hairdos in upbeat hues. Her neighbor sat alone studying a small guidebook (brushing up on Finnish?). But while turning the page he gave the briefest abstract glance out the window, and blinked at the bobbing coiffures in blonde, red, fawn, carrot, bronze, crimson, brass. “Great Barrier Reef,” he murmured, and went on reading.
That night for supper the group was assigned to the “Detinets,” a large stone grotto of a restaurant inside the Novgorod Kremlin. It held a long banquet table in the center, and private seating in alcoves carved high up in the walls. Waiters with trays served alcove patrons by springing nimbly up the wall on a series of massive graduated tree stumps. (After 40 years, the restaurant was shut down in 2009. Explanations vary. Some say Orthodox officials found it unseemly to serve honey mead in a historic church. Others say the fire marshals considered tree trunks to be poor footing for a mass evacuation.) The food was delicious, starting and ending with a stone ramekin cup of onion soup with a handful of bread and cheese melted on top. Cleo was famished and wolfed it down, waiting for supper, not knowing that she had just devoured it. The other diners were content with the famous mead and bottles of vodka from potatoes, from buffalo grass, from berries, from deep jacket pockets. Soon toasts for Russian-American friendship rang out from tables to alcoves and back. Some peacemaker noticed that Cleo was not drinking. He tumbled from an alcove to set down a glass of spirits and to make sure she drank it down for harmony on earth. She gave him a smile and many pretty thanks and regrets, holding the glass out for him to take back, secretly wishing that someone in this restaurant would have sense enough to bring her even pretzel sticks or a dinner mint. But this man was not about to be crossed in public before his wife and colleagues. He grabbed her glass hand while patrons shouted her down and egged him on with cutlery-banging chants of “Davay! Davay! C’mon, c’mon!” while he forced the drink to her lips.
Then, the glass was plucked from their hands. Cleo’s first choice of defender locked eyes with the man and tossed back her drink like water. “Ona ne privykla, she isn’t used to this,” he murmured with a bow, laying a steady handgrip on her shoulder. Then, he fairly assailed the man with praise for his exquisite taste, guessing and naming correctly some special ingredient in the distillation (Ambergris? amanita? aconite? bear bile? brimstone? Who knows?). The man pounded his back, gave him an apology about that little misunderstanding with the girl, and to hearty applause dragged his new American in triumph up the tree trunks to enchant his family and friends. And with that, a restaurant of 80-proof volatile emotions was reined on a dime by a verbal charioteer, a student 20 years old.
Then came graduation and his wedding, and he went on in school to invent a career combining three professions and several countries while raising his family. Some 25 years later Cleo looked him up and sent him an email to thank him for his intervention at the Detinets restaurant. That email exchange was the only conversation the two of them ever had. He emailed right back, freely confessing that he did not recall the incident in question. His reply was so elegant and gracious that it took her a few readings to grasp that he did not actually remember which student she was. He still wished her every success and happiness. He also assured her that for any small gesture on his part, her email of thanks after so many years was a courteous surprise leaving him “priiatno oshelomlën” — pleasantly astonished, or pleasantly stunned. The participle root is shlem, or helmet, with associations at least as old as the Kremlin at Novgorod. He meant that her words unarmed him, smiting the knight’s helmet from his head.
These memories in random order came to mind just the other day. I was cooking supper then, and had the strangest sense that he was standing right behind me in the kitchen. (This does not indicate psychic powers. It only shows that some of us reminisce a lot. Though in this case I asked God what possible use there could be in the gift of a good memory for certain people, when these people don’t need me to think of them at all.) Then, lidding pots and drying hands, I sat down to check email.
And there in my inbox was a message from a trusty schoolfellow off the old Bloc, sending us alumni a sudden and untimely bulletin about our old classmate. Struck helmetless by the news, I looked for and discovered website after website in English and Russian with testimonials and eulogies all about him. I learned in awe just how far he had gone, in what amazing ways, and how many many people were touched by his work and his integrity. Then, there was a tribute website about him written by his family. And with their words, everything clicked into place: the whole point and the meaning of being Cleo at a schooldesk with an eye for light. “Remember me,” he might have told her then; “but not for my sake. Write something down for my children.”
This is what I sent the family then, these few stories about a virtue which is often under- (or over-) looked: a man’s goodness to the small and random people who he didn’t notice at the time, and didn’t remember later on. That courtesy is one more bright thread in his platinum existence, connecting everything: Fortress at sunset, prayers with angelfish, snowfall on marble Madonna and her broken Son. A youth at 20 in the footlights, singing us goodbye:
Ah, you roads, of dust and mist.
You never know where fate will lead
when bullets sing; perhaps the open steppe,
To fall on folded wing.