The Secret Boris

Now Martha and Boris felt freer about revealing their relationship to the world, though both recognized that discretion was still necessary given the continuing disapproval of Boris’s superiors and Martha’s parents. Their affair grew steadily more serious, despite Martha’s efforts to keep things light and noncommittal. She continued to see Armand Berard of the French embassy, and possibly Diels, and to accept dates from potential new suitors, and this drove Boris wild with jealousy. He sent a blizzard of notes, flowers, and music and telephoned her repeatedly. “I wanted to love him only lightly,” Martha wrote, in an unpublished account; “I tried to treat him as casually as I did other friends. I forced myself to be indifferent to him one week; then the next, I became stupidly jealous. I was forgetful of him, then absorbed in him. It was an unbearable contradiction, grievous and frustrating to us both.”

Martha was still committed to seeing the best in the Nazi revolution, but Boris had no illusions about what was occurring around them. To Martha’s irritation, he was always looking for the underlying motives that governed the actions of Nazi leaders and the various figures who visited the U.S. embassy.

“You always see the bad things,” she said angrily. “You should try to see the positive things in Germany, and in our visitors, not always suspect them of ulterior motives.”

She suggested that at times he too was guilty of hiding his motives—“I think you’re jealous of Armand,” she said, “or anyone else who takes me out.”

The next day, she received a package from Boris. Inside she found three ceramic monkeys and a card that read, “See no Evil, Hear no Evil, Speak no Evil.” Boris closed the note: “I love you.”

Martha laughed. In return, she sent him a small carved-wood figure of a nun, along with a note that assured him she was following the monkeys’ orders.

Behind it all was that looming question: where could their relationship possibly go? “I could not bear to think of the future, either with or without him,” she wrote. “I loved my family, my country, and did not want to face the possibility of separation from either.”

This tension led to misunderstandings and grief. Boris suffered.

“Martha!” he wrote in one pain-flushed letter. “I am so sad that I cannot find the right words for everything that happened. Forgive me if I have done something mean or bad to you. I did not mean or wish to do so. I understand you, but not completely, and I do not know what I ought to do. What shall I do?

“Farewell, Martha, be happy without me, and do not think bad about me.”

Always they came back together. Each separation seemed to intensify their attraction all the more but also amplified the moments of misunderstanding and anger—until one Sunday afternoon in late November their relationship underwent a material change. She recalled it all in fine-grained detail.

A bleak day, the sky like smudged charcoal, the air cold, but not so cold as to prompt Boris to raise the top on his Ford. They set out for a cozy restaurant they both loved that was housed in a boathouse on pilings over a lake in the Wannsee district. A fragrant pine forest walled the shoreline.

They found the restaurant to be almost empty but still charming. Wood tables surrounded a small dance floor. When the jukebox wasn’t playing, the sound of water gently smacking the pilings outside was clearly audible.

Martha ordered onion soup, salad, and beer; Boris chose vodka, shashlik, and herring immersed in sour cream and onions. And more vodka. Boris loved food, Martha noted, but never seemed to gain ein Pfund.

After lunch they danced. Boris was improving but still tended to treat dancing and walking as interchangeable phenomena. At one point as their bodies came together, both became very still, Martha recalled; she felt suddenly radiant with heat.

Boris pulled away abruptly. He took her arm and led her outside onto a wooden deck that jutted over the water. She looked at him and saw pain—eyebrows drawn together, lips compressed. He seemed agitated. They stood together at the rail watching a squadron of white swans.

He turned to her, his expression almost somber. “Martha,” he said, “I love you.” He confessed now that he had felt that way ever since the first time he had seen her at Sigrid Schultz’s apartment. He held her before him, his hands firmly vised around her elbows. The mad-cap gaiety was gone.

He stepped back and looked at her. “Don’t play with me, darling,” he said. “Du hast viele Bewerber.” You have a lot of suitors. “You should not decide yet. But don’t treat me lightly. I could not bear it.”

She looked away. “I love you, Boris. You know it. And you know how hard I try not to.”

Boris turned to watch the water. “Yes, I know it,” he said with sorrow. “It is not easy for me either.”

Boris could never be subdued for long, however. His smile reappeared—that explosive smile. “But,” he said, “your country and mine are now friends, officially, and that makes it better, makes anything possible, doesn’t it?”

Yes, but…

There was another obstacle. Boris had been keeping a secret. Martha knew it but had not yet told him so. Now, facing him, she made her voice very quiet.

“Also,” she said, “you are married.”

Once again Boris stepped away. His complexion, already flushed from the cold, grew perceptibly redder. He moved to the railing and leaned on his elbows. His long frame formed a slender and graceful arc. Neither spoke.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I should have told you. I thought you knew. Forgive me.”

She told him that she had not known at first, not until Armand and her parents showed her Boris’s entry in the diplomatic directory published by the German foreign office. Next to Boris’s name was a reference to his wife, who was “abwesend.” Meaning absent.

“She is not ‘absent,’ ” Boris said. “We are separated. We have not been happy together for a long time. The next diplomatic listing will have nothing in that space.” He revealed as well that he had a daughter, whom he adored. It was only through her, he said, that he continued to have contact with his wife.

Martha noticed tears in his eyes. He had cried in her presence before, and she always found it moving but also discomfiting. A crying man—this was new to her. In America, men did not cry. Not yet. Up until now she had seen her father with tears in his eyes only once, upon the death of Woodrow Wilson, whom he counted as a good friend. There would be one other occasion, but that was to come in a few years’ time.

They went back into the restaurant, to their table. Boris ordered another vodka. He seemed relieved. They held hands across the table.

But now Martha offered a revelation of her own.

“I too am married,” she said.

The intensity of his response startled her. His voice fell and darkened. “Martha, no!” He continued to hold her hands, but his expression changed to one of puzzlement and pain. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

She explained that her marriage had been a secret from the start, to all but her family—that her husband was a banker in New York, she had loved him once, and deeply, but now they were legally separated, with only the technicalities of divorce remaining.

Boris dropped his head to his arms. Under his breath he said something in Russian. She stroked his hair.

He stood abruptly and walked back outside. Martha stayed seated. A few moments later, Boris returned.

Ach, dear God,” he said. He laughed. He kissed her head. “Oh, what a mess we’re in. A married woman, a banker, a foreign diplomat’s daughter—I don’t think it could be worse. But we’ll figure it out somehow. Communists are used to doing the impossible. But you must help me.”

It was nearly sundown when they left the restaurant and began their drive back toward the city, the top still down. The day had been an important one. Martha recalled small details—the onrushing wind that tore her hair loose from its coil at the back of her head, and how Boris drove with his right arm over her shoulder, his hand cupping her breast, as was often his custom. The dense forests along the roads grew darker in the fading light and exuded a rich autumnal fragrance. Her hair flew behind her in tendrils of gold.

Though neither said so directly, both understood that something fundamental had occurred. She had fallen deeply for this man and could no longer treat him in the same way she treated her other conquests. She had not wanted this to happen, but it had, and with a man whom the rest of the world saw as unsuitable in the extreme.

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