Winter Palace [story] by Rosalie Morales Kearns

Her husband was the center of attention, talking, telling jokes, a tight knot of people gathered round.

Lourdes edged past, chose a table at the far end of the reception room. Not much of a view out the windows, but at least a glimpse of water on the horizon, an inlet of the Baltic Sea. She nodded to the man next to her and realized she’d met him the first day of the conference. From the IMF. Or the World Bank. He had the practiced smile of a diplomat. Maybe the U.S. embassy.

“How do you like Stockholm?” he said.

Lourdes was hopeless at small talk. She had to pause, think it over. How did she like Stockholm? A city of chrome and glass and polished blond wood. Sunlight bounced off every hard surface.

“Too shiny.”

His eyes flicked down to her glass, smile fading.

“It’s orange juice,” she said, but he had already started a conversation with the man across the table. She was getting out of the habit of using complete sentences.

The people at Eliot’s table laughed. That’s how it is when you’re a rising academic star. Journalists phone up for interviews.  You’re invited to the right conferences. You open your mouth and people lean forward, smiles ready for every clever remark.

The news shows loved him. The way he talked about the economic restructuring of Eastern Europe made it seem understandable, even reasonable. Combine the telegenic smile with the English accent, the dimples, the blue eyes, you’ve got a sexy economist, a living paradox.

People assumed Lourdes was a secretary, or perhaps a college intern, and she had given up trying to explain that she was a research assistant at the Institute, a soon-to-be Ph.D. if she ever finished her dissertation. Older men treated her as if she were invisible, except when they were propositioning her. Sometimes even then.

Slowly more people sat down at her table. To her right, an analyst from Radio Free Europe. Across from him a Czech financial advisor who had asked her that morning to get him a cup of coffee. A man in a badly fitting gray suit took the seat across from her. She recognized the name on his conference badge, Vladislav Vorontsov. Another academic celebrity. The Russian counterpart to Eliot, they said.

Still so odd to think “Russian” instead of “Soviet.” The Berlin Wall had been down for four years now, the USSR dissolved two years ago, everyone scrambling for position on a new map of the world.

Vorontsov introduced himself to the men on either side of him and on either side of Lourdes. He said nothing to her. During the meal he addressed only her neighbors, even when he was responding to something she’d said. She tried to watch him without being obvious. He had a beaked nose and small brown eyes, sparse hair of an indeterminate color, a forehead too high and wide for the rest of his thin face. Hard to believe he was younger than Eliot. He looked ten years older at least.

While the main course was being cleared he caught Lourdes’s eye and winked at her. She was still wondering whether she’d imagined it when she felt a foot gently nudging her own. Her instinctive response was to look under the table but she caught herself in time. She must have looked stunned. Vorontsov, in the midst of an earnest conversation on the likelihood of anarchy in his country, seemed to be choking back a laugh.

After dessert he gave her a tight-lipped smile, or maybe a leer, before he stood up to join the people clustered around her husband.

 ***

The conference organizers scheduled an excursion to the village of Mariefred on Lake Mälaren. Houses there were mostly stone and old wood, and as far as Lourdes could see there was nothing made of chrome. Somehow the place was still as clean and sparkling as Stockholm.

First a walking tour, then everyone headed for the gift shops. Lourdes went in the other direction and ended up in an old Lutheran church. Pews of dark, highly polished wood, a plain altar, oil paintings on the walls, portraits of somber men hardly visible in the semi-gloom. She took a seat in a pew at the back.

If she’d lived here all her life, this beauty would be all she knew. All she needed. Maybe she would travel one day, stray inside a cathedral and be dazed by the mosaics, the stained glass. She would want to get back to these stern saints, this dark wood.

Minutes passed before a man’s voice broke the silence.

“An interesting relic, this place.”

Vorontsov stood in the shadows along the side, near the altar. He walked back to her pew and sat next to her.

“It evokes a certain feeling,” he said. “Not holiness, of course. Perhaps nostalgia.” His grammar was perfect but he spoke with a heavy accent. “It belongs to an age when people feared what they did not understand.”

She didn’t know which was more surprising, that he must have been there all along, watching her, or that he was finally speaking to her.

He seemed pleased with himself. “You Americans, ­everything you are thinking can be read on your face. But sometimes that can be quite, how do you say, ocharovatelno.” Charming.

Familiar ground now. A condescending voice, a man trying to assume an intimacy with her when he barely knew her. She wished she could think of something to put him in his place.

“But I am rude,” he said, “I have not introduced myself—.”

“I know who you are.”

“I am flattered. And I know who you are. A respected translator of our literature.”

“Respected by the half dozen people who read Russian novels in translation.” Odd that he’d known that. She had worked on only two titles before she’d gone back to grad school.

“And of course your husband is well known too.”

“Yes.”

“Tell me about him.”

She was used to being in charge of the conversation when a man was trying to flirt. This one was too slippery to handle.

“What would you like to know?”

“Anything. Tell me anything you want.”

He probably thought of Eliot as a competitor, hoped to find out something damaging. Sorry to disappoint you, she wanted to say, the nice guy act isn’t an act. Eliot had no interest in gossiping, stabbing people in the back, something she’d always admired about him.

She looked again at the poker-faced men in the paintings. She would take her inspiration from them, give an answer that revealed nothing.

“He was named for T.S. Eliot,” she said finally.

“A distinguished namesake.”

“I don’t like Eliot.”

“Nor do I.”

The poet, I mean.”

“Yes.”

 ***

That night at dinner Vorontsov was seated next to her. Again he ignored her, until the main course was served and the waiter brought her a special plate.

“Don’t you like the entree?” he asked in Russian.

She replied in Russian as well. “I’m a vegetarian.”

He seemed to find this amusing. His smile revealed all his teeth, several of them gold. “I see your wine glass is empty too.”

“I don’t drink.”

“What foolishness is this?” In Russian, the question sounded both more personal and more dismissive at the same time.

“Alcohol isn’t like food,” she said. “It’s—we don’t need to—.” The way he looked at her was interfering with her train of thought. She switched to English but it didn’t help. “It’s not—necessary for life….”

Eliot didn’t stumble all over himself like this, neither did Vorontsov. You never saw them at a loss for words.

“Alcohol unnecessary? It’s medicine! You don’t know what’s good for you.”

He turned away and started talking to the man seated to his right. Lourdes had no choice but to turn her attention to the man on her left, a bank president she’d known from other conferences. Normally she didn’t care for businessmen. The older and more successful they were, the more boring they got. But this one was almost appealing: well-read, articulate. More literature professor than capitalist.

“My invitation still stands, you know,” the bank president said.

Lourdes was trying to think up a response to Vorontsov. “What invitation was that?”

“You really know how to hurt a man. Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten where we left off in Frankfurt?”

He had invited her to his estate in the English countryside, where she could work on her novel in peace. Lourdes had admitted to him once that she used to write, before she met Eliot, and he dangled his offer in front of her whenever they met. She managed to steer the conversation onto another topic without giving him an answer.

Her husband came by during dessert to greet the people at her table.

“You’re a lucky man,” the bank president told him.

“Indeed I am,” Eliot said brightly. He never disagreed with anyone.

“You’ve got a lovely, talented wife, and she refuses to run away with me.”

“What have I done to deserve her?” Eliot squeezed her shoulder and Lourdes had to keep herself from cringing. She was afraid he would pat her on the head next. “She’s such a good sport.”

He breezed off and Vorontsov burst out laughing. “On nichego ne znaet o tebe. Sovershenno nichego.” He knows nothing about you, he said, using the informal, intimate form of “you.” Absolutely nothing.

People had never stopped congratulating her on Eliot since the day she’d married him. How lucky you are, they said. Such a nice man, so handsome.

She wondered whether others nearby had heard Vorontsov. But everyone was talking loudly, and none of them understood Russian anyway.

She still wanted to argue with him about the alcohol. I’m trying to rid my life of the superfluous, she should have said.

Naturally, something so coherent and eloquent occurred to her only later.

 ***

She watched Eliot smiling as he worked the crowd on the last morning of the conference. She was irritated by his good mood, then annoyed at herself for being petty. What kind of person begrudges happiness? He never said an unkind word to her, never reminded her that she hadn’t achieved his professional success, wasn’t even on an identifiable path in the vague direction of success.

“You’re a bit of a misanthrope, darling,” was the closest he got to a criticism, but he made it seem an endearing quirk, he would kiss her on the forehead and smile when he said it.

Vorontsov showed up beside her. “You should see more of Stockholm before you leave,” he said, as if continuing a conversation they’d broken off a minute ago.

“But Eliot’s on the panel this morning.”

“The plenary sessions are boring. We will be back in time for lunch.”

 ***

Skansen was an open-air museum. Old buildings from all over the country had been uprooted and replanted here: wooden farmsteads, stone cottages with turf roofs, workshops, a mill, churches. Lourdes sat in the doorway of a farmhouse. She imagined she didn’t have a conference to go back to. She knew the name of the spiky blue wildflowers by the fence. Vorontsov was just a man from the next village.

“Do you like poetry?” she asked him.

“It depends. So much of it is self-pity.”

“One of my favorites is ­the one Blok wrote to Anna Akhmatova. It’s an interesting problem for the translator, especially the word shtrashna. The literal meaning is ‘terrible,’ but in English that connotes something of poor quality, or evil, as in, what a terrible movie, or what a terrible thing to do. So in the first line we could say, ‘Your beauty is terrifying,’ or ‘Your beauty strikes terror,’ but then we really do need ‘terrible’ when she says, ‘I’m not so terrible that I could simply kill, nor so simple that I don’t know how terrible life is.’”

“Your talents are wasted at the Institute,” he said.

“It’s hard to make a living as a translator.” She stood up and went into the farmhouse before he could ask anything else. By the time he caught up with her in a back room she was sitting at a spinning wheel in front of an enormous stone fireplace.

“When I go into an old house,” she said, “I start imagining what it was like to live there, day after day, and not know any other kind of life.”

“You sound like a novelist.”

“I used to be.”

This was usually the point in a conversation where she shut down: when someone started grilling her about her life, reminding her that she should have had it so much better planned. But this time she felt compelled to explain herself.

“I had too much work to do,” she said. “The writing kind of got swallowed up.” She had barely managed to juggle translating work and temp jobs with her writing. Then Eliot made her see how important it was to get a doctorate. You have the mind of an academic, he’d said. You can’t let that go to waste. And writing fiction is such an iffy business. You have a million to one chance of getting published.

“Let’s go on to the next building,” she said. She didn’t owe anyone an explanation.

On the path to the meetinghouse she stopped to inspect a runestone. The guide booklet explained the inscription: Holmdis, son of Gunnar, had this stone raised to Ulv, son of Björn. An indecipherable message to commemorate some man or other.

“I suppose it was your husband’s idea,” he said, “to work at the Institute.”

It had seemed like a good idea at the time. The pay is much better, he’d said, than your doctoral grant. I know how you hate being financially dependent on anyone. And darling I could really use your help. “His Russian isn’t too good. I do abstracts of journal articles for him. And I’m editing his latest manuscript.”

“How valuable you are to him.”

She spent her days researching banking reform in Hungary, for God’s sake, and at night she dreamed up ideas and characters and stories that she swore she’d sit down and write about, but they stayed rotting in her head.

“How did we get from poetry to my husband?”

“By all means,” he said, “let us return to poetry.”

“I don’t read much of it, actually, but I hate to see a bad translation of a Russian poem. And some really good ones have hardly been translated at all, like Shvartz and Parnok, and Shkapskaia.”

“All women, I notice.”

“I’m tired of reading men.”

Again the wolfish, gold-toothed smile. “If you like this place,” he said, “you should go to Novgorod. It has an architectural museum, more interesting than this one. I was born in Novgorod.”

That was the first personal remark he had made. Lourdes realized she knew nothing about him, whether he was married or had children, how he had risen so quickly. What compromises he had to make with his conscience. If he had one.

 ***

Nothing had been planned: her job, her degree, her choice of language to study. As a teenager she had been steeped in the Latin American and Caribbean authors whose books filled her parents’ house. Russian literature seemed exotic by comparison, but she was bored by Tolstoy and his moralizing; unengaged by Chekhov; depressed by the absurdity and hopelessness of Gogol.

Then she came across Cancer Ward and The First Circle. It was hard to admit later on to her progressive friends that the old theocratic dinosaur Solzhenitsyn was the one who made her want to study Russian when she got to college. She couldn’t explain how she resonated with his characters: indomitable losers who expected larger forces to crush them but carried on anyway.

She panicked when she went to the Soviet Union the first time. She’d been studying the language for three years by then, but Russian in the mouths of native speakers sounded like slurred nonsense. Nor was she able to make the simplest requests of the hotel staff—an extra pillow, a clothes hanger—words she could say in English and Spanish but had never come across in Russian novels.

She forced herself to speak only Russian, to think only Russian, to empty her head of the English and Spanish thoughts and leave it empty until Russian words floated within reach. She walked around Leningrad alone and listened, let the strange language flow through her, without feeling anxious, without trying to trap it and understand it. Then one afternoon on the metro, what had seemed like incomprehensible static on the loudspeaker resolved itself into individual words: Ostorozhno—dveri zakrivayutsya. From then on, everything made sense.

At night she would whisper to herself in Russian: lines from Pushkin, popular song lyrics, amazed at how they flowed out, how they sounded Russian.

Ya pomnyu chudnoye mgnovyeniye.
Ya ne znayu, kak mne skazat ob etom.

Later she used to joke about that epiphanic metro announcement. Her first message from Mother Russia: Watch out–the doors are closing.

***

In the evening Vorontsov approached her and Eliot at the cocktail hour after the final conference session. He had heard they were traveling to Moscow after Stockholm, he said. They should take a side trip to Novgorod. He, Vorontsov, was taking vacation and would be happy to act as their guide.

“So kind of you, Vlad,” Eliot said, “but my schedule in Moscow’s too tight. Tell you what, Lourdes, why don’t you go without me? You love those old Russian towns.”

That night she woke from a dream in which she’d been urgently whispering in Vorontsov’s ear. Eliot, asleep beside her, chuckled softly. He was the only person she knew who never suffered from bad dreams or insomnia. He slept the sleep of the just, he liked to say. He had nothing on his conscience.

***

Novgorod was famous for its ancient churches: onion domes on top of massive cubes of whitewashed stone, with the smallest possible windows and no decoration. In front of St. Sophia’s Cathedral Vorontsov pointed out the bronze dove perched on the highest dome. Legend said Novgorod would endure until the dove flew away. “Self-delusion on a grand scale,” he called it.

The timber buildings of the open-air museum were a relief in comparison. They were unthinkably old, but with whimsical touches: houses with playful carved ornamentation above the windows, a church with a wraparound porch.

“You are in a good mood,” he said. “You enjoyed Moscow.”

“I didn’t spend much time there. It’s Leningrad—.” Leningrad that I love, she was going to say, but he would smirk at such wholehearted feeling, ridicule her for not calling it Petersburg.

When she was there she went days speaking nothing but Russian. People couldn’t tell she was a foreigner.

“You played your game in Petersburg, then. Going into old buildings and pretending you live there.”

“When I went to the Winter Palace for the first time, years ago, I didn’t care that I was in a great art museum. I hardly noticed the paintings. I walked around staring at the floor and the windows, the columns, the carved ceilings. And of course the floor is stunning.” Every kind and color of wood you could imagine, and it formed a different pattern in every room. Even the name was something out of a fairy tale: the Winter Palace, home of the powerful Snow Queen, magnificent dwelling of ice and diamonds.

She couldn’t remember the last time she had talked so much. Odd to think that when she first met Vorontsov she’d thought of him as an ugly man with bad teeth and a shabby suit. Now she looked forward to seeing him. Talking to him.

This impulse to talk was turning into a need, as strong as the sexual urge, to confess things she didn’t tell anyone. I dream about men all the time, she wanted to say. In her dreams she made love to all kinds of men, acquaintances, former lovers, men she’d seen but never met, even men she’d never seen before. But not once had she dreamed about her own husband.

They went inside the oldest of the houses, windowless except for a smoke-hole cut in the roof, with walls built thick against the unforgiving Russian winters. She sat on a rough wooden bench. Before her sight could adjust to the gloom she heard Vorontsov’s voice beside her.

“Why did you marry him?”

“It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

Wait—that couldn’t be right. The question had caught her off guard.

“That’s not what I meant to say.”

She felt his scorn and amusement working on her like a stimulant. She would put Vorontsov into a story, a skeletal man with a death’s-head grin. The story had a female character too. Maybe they would have an angst-ridden affair in a dusty hotel. Maybe the woman would stay in Russia. She would move into a hut, grow cabbages in her garden and go hunting for mushrooms in the forest with grumpy old women.

Or maybe she would go to the airport, walk up to the reservation counter and ask for a oneway ticket. “To where?” “What have you got?”

The woman’s husband would be relieved. He would wish her luck, send her a card every Christmas. Never mention how troublesome she’d been as a wife.

Is there an answer?” Vorontsov said.

She needed to be alone.

If she could stay in this warm darkness, away from the glaring sunlight, she would have a chance to think. If the tourists left, if the caretakers closed the gates and went home, if Vorontsov lay down alone in the bed he was so confident of sharing with her, she would have a chance to think, and everything would be clear.

 

Image of 1930s Switchboard Operator

[Refer: this story was inspired partly by Chekhov’s “The Lady and the Dog,” which resonates with Renée Ashley’s poem in this issue, “While Walking to the Beach the Crazy Dog Lady Meets a Pit Bull Named Betty Marion White.”]

Image by Loris Silvio Zecchinato via Flickr Creative Commons

Rosalie Morales Kearns is a writer of Puerto Rican and Pennsylvania Dutch descent, based in Albany, NY. Her short story collection, Virgins and Tricksters, was published by Aqueous Books in 2012. One of the stories in the collection earned a Special Mention in the 2013 Pushcart Prize volume. Her stories, poems, essays, and book reviews have appeared in Witness, Fiction Writers Review, The Nervous Breakdown, and other journals. Kearns is also the founder of Shade Mountain Press, dedicated to publishing literary fiction by women. Her website is rosaliemoraleskearns.wordpress.com.