OUR FIFTH-GRADE LITERATURE TEACHER, Ludmila Ivanovna, is short and round, wheeling from one corner of the classroom to the other on tiny feet. We call her Couch Legs. She is the opposite of our English teacher, who is bony and tall and rarely moves.
With Couch Legs, we are studying the father of Russian literature, the Shakespeare of the Russian language. There isn’t much in Pushkin that can be shrouded in ideology: he is simply a classical poet whose sharp profile and ringlets of hair are familiar to every student within the borders of the Soviet Union. But Ludmila Ivanovna, her plump face framed in tight chemical curls, is doing something unauthorized and daring: she is entertaining us with an extracurricular analysis of the reading preferences of Tatiana, the virtuous heroine of Eugene Onegin.
“Tatiana adored romantic novels,” pines Ludmila the Couch Legs, basking in the rare spotlight of our attention. “She read in French, as all Russians did back then, and immersed herself in the love adventures of young dukes and ladies-in-waiting.”
We perk up at the sound of the word “love,” which is never mentioned in school, at least not in its romantic meaning. We hear a lot about love for the motherland and love for the Communist Party, but never about love for one another. It is almost scandalous that Tatiana, the example of chastity in Russian literature, was fond of such improper novels.
“Do you think she knew how to kiss?” I whisper to Larissa, my neighbor. We are seated two to a desk, thirty of us, encased in a stuffy classroom where dust whirls in the shafts of April light slanting through the windows. “I mean, before she married that general?”
Larissa giggles, then arches her eyebrows in bewilderment. Who knows what you can trust if Pushkin’s Tatiana could exhibit such astonishing frivolity.
Couch Legs, bathing in the intensified light of our attention, waves her short arms and rolls her eyes, a requirement for delivering the tragic story of a French countess. Her eyes sparkling, curls shaking, Ludmila is indignant and triumphant in the delivery of a story about this love of the unmentionable kind.
I do, of course, know about that love, although my mother, just like my school, pretends it doesn’t exist. After all, I will be twelve and in the sixth grade next September. In my courtyard, where things are more real, I see that love lurking over the rusty radiators between flights of stairs, where sixteen-year-olds pluck at guitar strings and sing of heartbreak, lighting the dark with their cigarettes.
In the middle of this Pushkin rapture, when our attention is piqued by Ludmila soaring to the climax of her story, the door opens and, as solemnly as always, in walks our principal. She is tall and stern, with a perfect crow’s nest hairdo on top of her serious head. No one I know has ever seen her smile. She sits at an empty desk in the back for one of her surprise class observations.
Couch Legs abruptly stops rolling around her makeshift stage, and the spotlight of our attention shifts, leaving her to flounder in the dark. I kick Larissa under the desk, and she skews her eyes in my direction, eyebrows bunching in a frown. No one dares to say anything, even in a low whisper, with the principal looming in the back.
We can smell Couch Legs’ distress. It exudes out of the pores of her flushed face and moistens her fine hair, tightening the ringlets over her temples. After a minute of leaden silence, Ludmila desperately hobbles from the breezy affairs of the French court to the curriculum-prescribed role of women in society, her voice a dull monotone.
I doodle on the desk with my fountain pen, a shameful thing to do since purple ink is impossible to erase. I scribble the word “love,” pressing the pen into the wood so that the letters stand out among other students’ desk comments on teachers and life. Thick and juicy, they pulsate like the hearts of the young lovers in Ludmila’s interrupted story.
The lecture on the role of women in nineteenth-century Russia floats quietly past my ears and out an open window, where the sun breaks into rainbow shards inside dripping icicles. As soon as class is over, I will run downstairs at breakneck speed and then, catching my breath, casually walk along the hallway past Room 11, where seventh-graders have a zoology class every Thursday. If I am lucky, I may see Nikolai Gromov, the boy who smiled at me in the coatroom two weeks ago.
Nikolai has just exchanged his Pioneer scarf for a Komsomol badge. This means he has turned fourteen, the age that assures every student a passage from the Young Pioneer Organization to the Komsomol, the Young Communist League. I can’t believe that a fourteen-year-old boy smiled at a mere fifth-grader in the coatroom.
The bell saves Ludmila from further attempts to breathe life into the mortuary of the social order in pre-revolutionary Russia. No one stirs. We are not allowed to move until the teacher gives permission, and the principal’s presence serves as an unspoken reminder of this unwritten rule. In one stately movement the principal stands up, collects the papers she has been covering with notes, and silently walks out. I don’t think I have ever heard her speak other than through a stage microphone during formal school functions.
“The lesson is over,” sighs Ludmila, who then sits down at her desk and begins to leaf through the roll book, her plump hand over her eyes. As I pass by her on the way out, I notice that her stubby fingers are trembling.
TODAY, ALTHOUGH OUR CLASSES are over at two-forty, we cannot go home. We have a quarterly Young Pioneer meeting, and to assure mandatory attendance the doors to the school building have been padlocked since two. The assistant principal stands guard, letting out only Komsomol members, whose necks are not adorned by red scarves. Two boys from my class try to slip past him by mingling with a group of Komsomolets, but he immediately plucks them out, shuts the door, and gives them a quick scolding.
From where I sit on the hallway window ledge, I wistfully watch Nikolai Gromov putting on his jacket and boots in the coatroom. Inside, all students are required to wear school shoes that we keep in cloth bags on assigned hangers. His shoe bag hangs on the far end in the “senior” corner, with “Gromov” cross-stitched in red across the coarse linen.
Nikolai walks toward the door without so much as a glance in my direction, and for a moment his tall figure is etched in a diamond of sunlight when the door is briefly opened; then it is just as hastily shut. Through a grimy square of the window, I see him lift stork-like legs over puddles as he crosses the gray pavement of the courtyard.
The yard is dotted with spongy piles of dirty snow, the only reminder of the long winter that for six months kept us wrapped in wool and fur. On the chilliest mornings, my nose shielded by a scarf my mother wrapped across my face, I climbed onto the bus that bumped along streets encrusted in ice, past frozen canals, petrified trees, and snow-capped monuments. That is how wintry Leningrad is carved on the template of memory: shimmering like a cameo, seen through a five-kopek-size circle cleared by my breath on a frosted bus window.
Now, the spring snow is porous and frail, and Nikolai Gromov, the first boy I ever liked, leaves without acknowledging my existence.
“The Pioneer meeting is starting in five minutes,” erupts the loudspeaker in the enthusiastic voice of Natasha, the school’s Pioneer activities organizer. Natasha is twenty, but she wears a Pioneer scarf and generally behaves like a zealous fifth-grader trying to score pyatorka, a five. A five is the highest grade bestowed on work that is indeed perfect, not marred by the slightest error. I earn straight fives in both English and Russian. Ludmila the Couch Legs adores my compositions in which, in guerrilla-like fashion, I snake around the prescribed interpretations of stories armed with quotations from Russian classics. I pride myself that in the two years I’ve been at this school I have never received a satisfactory three, let alone a two, or dvoika, a failure.
I sense that Nikolai Gromov, too, is far from ever receiving a dvoika. He has a spark in his eyes, a glow radiating from within. Our two-year age difference raises him even higher above the rest, an older boy whose long neck and measured gait make me feel limp and think about my father.
There is no way I can escape through the padlocked door guarded by the assistant principal, so there is nothing left to do but trudge into the auditorium already brimming with brown dresses and gray suits, our uniforms. The noise of grades three to six, three sections to each grade, bounces off the walls, clamor and laughter rising from rows of stacking chairs. Attendance is perfect; the padlock worked.
“We are gathered here today to report on our successes during this quarter.” Natasha’s voice, amplified by a microphone, rings with enthusiasm worthy of a more prominent audience than a flock of young Pioneers from the English school of Oktyabrsky district. She seems to be as competent in addressing a crowd as she is in coordinating our after-school craft projects, and she looks comfortable onstage, eloquent and entirely in charge. “Our first speaker is the head of the Soviet of the Young Pioneer Commune of our school.”
Tamara Kuznetsova, a heavy girl with hair braided in two rattails down her back, lumbers to the microphone with a stack of notes in her hands. Slowly but predictably, the surf of our voices calms, though never fully retreats. For me, Tamara’s significance lies solely in her being a classmate of Nikolai Gromov. She also turned fourteen recently, but will fulfill her head-of-the-Soviet duty until the end of the year.
In a dreary monotone, Tamara speaks about the 23rd Party Congress, reciting its accomplishments, which are familiar to all of us because they are painted on red banners looming over the most impressive buildings of the city. When she is finished quoting from the General Secretary’s speech, she switches to a recitation of our own school’s triumphs worded in much less sophisticated prose, a report she probably wrote herself between homework assignments the night before. I feel sorry for Tamara, who is sweating onstage in front of us, instead of following Nikolai Gromov out of our padlocked school.
As the thrill of falling in love floods me, I feel like telling the whole world about Nikolai. I need to share this brimming lightness, this buoyancy that spills out of me with every move, with every new thought about him. I even consider telling him.
I quietly pull a small notebook out of my book bag, a secret notebook in which I write what cannot be said. In which I wonder, for example, when it was that my mother metamorphosed from a young, daring surgeon into a union member who wouldn’t now be looking for a way to escape from this dreary meeting. In which I wonder why I wonder about this at all. Am I afraid that this transformation may just as easily happen to me? That one day I may become like her, voluntarily going to meetings instead of following older boys into the sunshine of the courtyard?
As Tamara’s voice fades out, I begin to write what I think about Nikolai, soon realizing that I am writing to Nikolai. Words stream out onto the page, weaving disparate strands of feeling into the trim braid of a letter.
Thin applause, initiated by Natasha, stirs up another wave of din from the audience as Tamara collects her notes and plods down the stage steps. Natasha, who has been lurking in the wings all the time, flies up to the microphone and taps on it with a pen. In a short navy skirt, with the red flame of a Pioneer scarf around her neck, she looks exactly like one of us, only more enthusiastic.
“The next issue on our agenda is of a personal nature,” says Natasha, and waves of hushed giggles rapidly subside. Matters of a personal nature seem out of place at this gathering of three hundred students packed in here as a result of a padlocked front door.
Someone keeps giggling in the front row, and Natasha patiently waits, looking down with mild reproach at two third-grade chatterers.
“Although trivial at first glance, this matter seems quite serious after deeper examination.” All the giggles have died down now, and our whole Pioneer commune is unusually quiet. “I am going to ask Lubov Petrovna, the homeroom teacher of grade 5B, to come to the podium and join me.”
Lubov Petrovna, a stout old woman in a blue suit she wears every day, ascends to the stage and installs herself next to Natasha, severe, thick-rimmed glasses adding importance to her size. She exudes a sense of power, and it streams, like smoke, down from the stage, silencing all of us. She does not need a microphone.
“One of us,” says Natasha in a somber voice reserved for personal matters, “wrote a note incongruent with the Code of Young Pioneers.” We perk up our ears the same way we did in literature class only a few hours earlier when Ludmila the Couch Legs began to spin her love stories.
“Fortunately, the note was intercepted by Lubov Petrovna so that the person who wrote it now has an opportunity to apologize in public.” It is so quiet that we can hear the voices of first-graders playing tag in the schoolyard. “The person who wrote the note, come onstage now.”
A current of whispers and shuffles drifts through the auditorium, grows stronger with every second of waiting, merges into the cloud of authority enveloping the stage. The sun breaks through the windows and dilutes the glare of incandescent lighting into a shade of watered-down tea.
“Come, come,” repeats Natasha, resolutely and persistently, a voice of a righteous older sister. A girl rises in the third row, her hair blonde and shining, her face almost as red as her scarf, and walks up the three steps to the stage, into the realm of power, slowly approaching Natasha and Lubov Petrovna, both straight and solemn. She seems very small, almost rickety, in front of Lubov Petrovna. She looks as if she could burst into flames at any moment, cinder instantaneously into a small mound of ashes.
“I am sorry,” mouths the girl, looking at her feet.
“Louder,” says Lubov Petrovna.
“I am sorry,” repeats the girl at a higher pitch, her mouth conforming to the words but not pleading.
“And I will never do it again,” says Natasha, orchestrating the scene.
“And I will never do it again,” repeats the girl in a voice so high and tense it could pop any second like a taut violin string.
Lubov Petrovna bends down and pats the girl on the shoulder. The girl turns on her heels and runs down the stage steps, past our greedy glances, past the rising clamor, out of the auditorium.
“The meeting is over,” says Natasha, smiling, voice ringing with satisfaction.
IN THE POST-MEETING TURBULENCE no one seems to want to leave, and I find my desk neighbor Larissa surrounded by a tight ring of classmates. By her elbows clenched to her sides and her squinted eyes I realize that she is telling the girl’s story. Larissa somehow manages to know all the school’s scandals, and that is why, despite my smoldering desire to know all about Nikolai, I have hesitated to ask her about him.
“And then she passed the note to the boy, Valerii I think is his name, and the teacher saw it and grabbed it!” sputters Larissa, and small bubbles of saliva fizzle in the corners of her mouth.
I think of my first English tutor, Irina Petrovna, and the mysterious word “privacy.” I even remember the sentence from her British textbook, “Helen and her new husband lost their privacy when her mother moved across the street,” the sentence even my tutor didn’t know how to decode. Only now it seems to make perfect sense: Helen and her husband parted with the same privacy the girl with blonde hair has just lost. Helen’s mother across the street was like Lubov Petrovna, who intercepted a note to a boy and made the girl who wrote it apologize in front of the whole school. I wish I could get on the tram and tell Irina Petrovna; I wish I could enlighten her with this newly acquired knowledge that even her fat Oxford dictionary didn’t contain.
“What was in the note?” asks Dina from grade 5C, elbowing her way closer to Larissa.
Larissa purses her lips and pauses in order to heighten the anticipation. For a second, all movement in our circle stops as Larissa glowers at us, the owner of a piece of exclusive information.
“I love you. K.,” she finally announces to an eruption of giggles. “And her name is Kira,” she continues so fast she almost chokes on her own words, “so they quickly found who it was. Can you imagine? I love you! Right in the middle of the class! And this boy Valerii, to whom the note was addressed, immediately told them it was her.”
“What an idiot,” says Viktor, who sits next to me in math, and everyone understands that he means Kira to be an idiot because he uses the feminine form, idiotka.
“And she denied it when she was caught,” blurts out Larissa, “but this Valerii told them it couldn’t be anyone else!”
Now I am glad I haven’t told Larissa anything about Nikolai. Like Natasha and my mother, she doesn’t seem to understand much about love.
Would my father understand? What would he think about my own unsanctioned letter?
“And what if it was you?” demands Dina, now standing straight in front of Larissa. “Would you like to be put onstage in front of Lubov Petrovna?”
“I would never have written the note,” declares Larissa, unclenching her fists and putting her hands on her hips. She looks around to see whether anyone would dare question her integrity. “And if I did, I wouldn’t send it to him in the middle of the class.”
My letter to Nikolai, also contrary to the Code of Young Pioneers, blooms in my notebook, and neither Natasha nor Lubov Petrovna can make me apologize for writing it. If I add some rhyme, it will be as beautiful as the one Pushkin’s Tatiana wrote to Onegin.
He will read it, meticulously copied on lined paper, signed with my full name. Sublime and dignified, this letter will haunt Nikolai for the rest of his life. When he reads it in middle age, in his late twenties, he will realize that he looked past something remarkable, something he could have touched by just stretching out his arm, by just casting a glance. He would realize how big and simple it was, this love that sprang up next to him in our school hallways.
But it will be too late. Like Pushkin’s Tatiana, I will then be married and faithful. It will be too late.