A Chekov Story Part 9-10 by James L. Groccia
On Saturday morning Jeremy slept in. Donna woke early and reclaimed her white shorts and blood-red halter to be in character for what she knew would be a brutal if not nearly fatal conversation was out on Helen Street heading for the campus quad well before nine. She walked quickly unmindful of the weather which promised rain and the morning already had the vestiges of a summer mist and there was the hint of drizzle and as they passed the laundry mat at the corner of Helen Street which in the early hours was quite deserted, she recalled Jeremy’s dream the night before last, the dream he was dreaming when she kissed his closed eyes, and walking with him to the same laundry mat the day before. In his dream, they walked the single block of Helen Street toward the laundry mat and Donna was carrying a white sack, much like an overstuffed pillowcase over her shoulder and why this task had fallen to her and what the sack contained he did not know, or why she was walking two steps behind Jeremy did not know either, except it was Jeremy’s dream and therefore possessed a logic all its own. And suddenly, in the dream Donna uttered a phrase that made Jeremy, in his strange dream, hang on every word and in the dream Jeremy had the false illusion that she first spoke the phrase in French, but it was a false illusion made more bizarre that he did not understand the language. But in the dream, Donna trudged on as if tired from a long journey or that the sack was far heavier than it appeared. Then, without taking in more than a breath of air, she uttered the phrase which cut through a morning mist as deeply as the one she was walking through now.
“’Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.'"
Jeremy in his dream turned to stare at Donna as if it was possible to make sense of what she had said, but she just smiled at him as if she had told a great joke. “Do you know where that is from?” She asked him. And in the dream, Jeremy had no clue, no idea, no feeling for what she had said other than it was so out of place and in his dream he could only wonder what Donna was carrying in the overlarge pillowcase and why it seemed so heavy and why he instead of she was carrying it down the now familiar length of Helen Street which older homes were again so much part of the dream.
“I don’t know,” Jeremy answered. “I have no idea and all I know that it is a bizarre thing for you to say.” As it was only a dream, Jeremy did not know what, if anything, he said next and Donna, in his dream expected an answer to what Jeremy considered her riddle and again remembered saying nothing more his gaze still fixed on the sack Donna was inexplicably carrying over her left shoulder.
“It’s from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland,” Donna said in Jeremy’s dream. “My mother read it to me many times when I was a child, and Donna repeated herself as if she knew she was a figment of Jeremy’s dream and her response needed to be said again so Jeremy would remember the dream.
Later that day, which was before they found the Saranac and the relief from the sun and the carpet of multi-colored dead leaves on the forest floor, Donna was carrying the laundry from her small suitcase which included the blood-red halter top and the pair of white shorts. Jeremy was walking quite fast, two steps ahead of her, his thoughts on other things than being gentleman like and carrying the white sack of laundry. He was thinking of Sunday and of the day ahead that would lead them to the Saranac or he was just walking ahead because he was somehow leading the way and he turned back to Donna as if half in apology and noticed the white sack over her shoulder, the strange sight, and immediately and with almost absolute recall he remembered his dream of the night before. But he did not break stride or stop Donna but instead he decided that this was a strange event and that there was nothing he could do but let the dream, which had passed from a dreamto reality, to play itself out. And Jeremy knew exactly what Donna would say next, half-way down Helen Street, the white sack heavy over her shoulder and she breathed to him that exact phrase from his dream in precisely the same way with exactly the same intonation, the same accent on the same syllables as if translated from another language.
“'Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.'"
But Jeremy still did not stop or tell Donna about the dream because in the dream there was more to come and as he remembered though his heart had started to race wildly, he had decided to let the dream play out.
“Do you know where that is from?” Donna asked.
And Jeremy’s eyes went from the heavy white sack which hung over Donna’s shoulder still exactly carried in the same way as in his dream and he lifted those same eyes, lost in the clear but fragmented dream, and said, simply and without raising his voice and with the same absolute certainty that had been in Donna’s voice, that had been a part of his dream, and before he answered which in time was only an instant from the utterance of her question he answered. “Lewis Carroll’s “Alice In Wonderland.” And Jeremy broke down, utterly beside himself, yet angry that he had broken the dream that maybe, or most likely, had further to go, and another solitary tear flowed from his eye because he had broken a spell or at the very least had a small part in a minor miracle that was his first experience with the unknown, the vast unknown that perhaps bordered faith and touched heaven the place where Chekhov’s peasants desired but never seemed to reach and he felt rooted to the ground yet he flew upward at the same time and for those words that touch of dream he considered Donna in even a new light as if she was his doorway into the unknown, the unfathomable, that she was an angel under a high overhead shot with white light cast down upon her like a scene from a Jonathan Demme movie, and any thoughts of death paled as if life began anew and Jeremy thought all this in a matter of a few moments because his revelation had stopped everything and even their movement along Helen Street seemed to freeze and the houses ceased to pass from one house to another and Jeremy realized that Donna was surprised and was looking at him in wonder and not because he knew at once the answer to her question but because, since she knew him so well and love him so much that he had a transcendental moment as though she knew about the dream and had shared it with him and had spoken to him that night before in French and had whispered Lewis Carroll’s words in French before she spoke them to him in English. But, of course, that had not happened and there was no explanation and in the briefest of motions Helen Street returned to life and houses passed until they approached in silence the small corner laundry mat which as was said before was deserted and both Jeremy and Donna somehow, someway had turned another corner of their brief existence with each other and this time it transcended love and was almost spiritual but then again perhaps it was only a dream.
“How did you know?” Asked Donna. “How did you know? And it was as if you knew even before I spoke the words, and I only said it because you let me carry the heavy sack and walked ahead of me and did not consider how tired I was and I wanted to surprise you by saying something profound something I remembered from my childhood when you were eight and I was five and the distance between us did not exist because we did not exist not as now, not when I am still fourteen and all I could think of was cleaning my blood-red halter which I knew you could never keep your hands off of and that this time I would let your hands fall below the halter or even come up under it and it was all because I soon would be gone from you and I had an image of “Alice in Wonderland,” which under the sound of my mother’s voice put me to sleep at night just as the sound of your father’s piano before he smashed it and in that moment, or even in the nights that followed with you in that single bed with your sister childhood stopped as did mine the evening when my mother did not read “Alice in Wonderland” because she thought that I was too old or too bored with the story.” And Donna said all this in the moments before they reached the laundry mat still mindful that Jeremy had not yet answered her question of how he knew the single passage which was buried in Lewis Carroll’s book as if hidden and not meant to be quoted nearly a century later by a fourteen year old girl carrying a large white sack over her shoulder beneath a linen shirt that was meant to be removed in favor of the blood-red halter top when the two of them were safely back at the apartment and like in the Beatle song waiting for the sun, that would come through the window and cast it in light like a prism.
And Jeremy told Donna all about the dream and she stopped and put down the heavy white sack and looked at him, believing him and felt both relief and exhilaration that she once again reached him on a level that perhaps God could only comprehend and that it was still another measure of their love which had hardly started although she still felt that its end might be somehow near, dream or no dream, and the sky which had started out with such promise suddenly darkened and this time that familiar solitary tear fell from her eye, a solitary tear which in a few days would be joined by others and this time there was only a dream to blame.
The door to Ivanya Akonovitch ‘s office was wide open and there was no need for Donna to knock, but she knocked anyway.
"Désolé de vous déranger mais puis-je entrer ?” Donna asked.
“Sorry to bother you, but may I come in?”
"Oui, mon enfant innocent. Vous pouvez entrer, mais il n'y a aucun besoin de parler le français ici. Ou est votre ami à l'extérieur de l'attente de vous?”
“Yes, my innocent child. You may come in, but there is no need to speak French here. Or is your friend outside waiting for you?” answered Ivanya. The teacher’s French was at best provincial, learned in a town well outside of Moscow that had once been a village, a place next to a great estate where nineteenth century peasants begged for land to lease, a village not distant from the immense Russian steppe that stretched for miles longer than many countries, a land where travelers took weeks to end up at any destination and the great steppe had many seasons and winter was the worst, the cold coming from the north or west from the edges of Siberia. But the spring also was also bad although the fear of getting lost in winter was no more. The danger was in the forging of the streams turned by the rapid melting of the snow and the uneven terrain of the dark forests drowned many and in the nineteenth century and even well into the twentieth the peasant boatmen rowed their fragile boats for kopecks and prayed for rich passengers who would tip them in rubles. Ivanya would have told Donna all of this because she taught Chekhov and nineteenth century literature that blended with nineteenth century Russian history because it was a time of Russian nobility and once rich landowners who fell to ruin and misfortune, whose children died as young as peasant children who always seemed to die young and the fact that there were old peasants who suffered the loss of husbands and wives and children yet still worked the land and patched their thatched roofs and struggled for the luxury of horses seemed miraculous to Ivanya whose family generations ago and a century before she met Anatola Akonovitch and in nineteenth century Russia peasants were everything because they grew the food and made the landowners, the ones that did not drink or gamble or fall into ruin, very rich men who at times would come to call in Saint Petersburg for a glimpse of the Czar. But Ivanya who was self-conscious of her French told Donna none of this and waited patiently until the child revealed her reason for being there. It was a coincidence really because it was Saturday and the offices in the quads were empty and the classes were still being cleaned and preened for the students who would come the following week. Ivanya knew of course that the child was no fool and had guessed that the insecure instructor would be reading and preparing her lectures, brushing up on her Russian which was rusty but which she would never actually use in any of her lectures. Russia, Ivanya thought, was more than a language especially in the nineteenth century. Russia was simply Russia and did not need a language to convey its primitive vastness, the wonders of the steppe, and with the quality of the English translations of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy so good and well-rehearsed over the last century and a half that knowledge of Russian, while useful, was no longer all that necessary. Russia was Russia and its literature either about the nobility which was Tolstoy’s domain or about the peasants which was somehow so eloquently written about by Chekhov was greater in the nineteenth century than the literature of the more prominent western countries, and that greatness was translated into many languages, mostly French, mostly in Paris, where the richest Russians kept winter homes and by the end of the century both Dostoevsky and Tolstoy were long immortalized leaving the legacy of Russian post Tolstoy literature to a mere short story writer whose language was richer than even that of the century’s two great Russian novelists, and while Chekhov’s stories sometimes meandered and were ambiguous and while the peasants did not often survive the brutality of their lives, Chekhov’s heart was always with them, and the once religious man accommodated faith in every run-on sentence that seemed to end precisely where it should and his stories whether in the journals of the day or bound in leather and sold in Paris bookstores toward the end of his short life were nothing short of eternal and they were greater than the novels of Twain or Conrad and to Ivanya’s thinking it was because they were written in Russia, the vast and holiest and most insufferable of countries, and when each story was set aside for another for Chekhov wrote so many they imparted what was unique to Russia which was the faith, especially the peasants needed to have and the rich in Paris had put aside with the bound leather books that often fell heavily to the floor until they reached for it and read another story so rich in despair. Russia, vast Russia, then and now was a place of sorrow and tears. Ivanya remembered Chekhov’s story “The House With the Mezzanine,” the dispiriting voices of Lydia and the landscape painter who were so different they could never fall in love and that it was her younger sister who, for the reason that he was a painter, fell in love with him. The love between the younger sister who was named Missyus and the painter was as vaguely portrayed as his unmentioned name. He loves her deeply but does not seek her out beyond the empty house with the mezzanine, his love as forgotten as his soul and as deep.
In those short quiet uncomfortable minutes that Ivanya waited on the young girl, she thought all of this and if Donna had known what she was thinking while Ivanya pretended to shuffle her books and notes she would not have thought to come or question the teacher about her suspected designs on the seventeen year old Jeremy asleep as it was still only a few minutes after nine in the morning and it was only in Ivanya’s mind that many centuries had passed.
Neither Donna nor Ivanya felt comfortable with the silence. Ivanya assumed that the child had come to her office to ask her something or to try to say something of overwhelming importance. But what was there to ask? What was there to say? Then Ivanya suddenly realized as she would realize the same thing over the next two years that while this girl was a mere fourteen she was not a child and though she believed the girl was innocent in the way women often pretended that the slender girl with the blood-red halter top was somewhat less innocent than met the eye. Ivanya knew at that moment that the girl could see right through her and did the moment Ivanya had set eyes on Jeremy, had focused on him, had seen in him, although Ivanya was quite an experienced woman, the same inexplicable qualities in Jeremy that the girl had seen at only fourteen and suddenly it seemed that they were joined in mortal combat. It was for Ivanya an unforeseen dilemma that she would have to fight so hard for the soul of a boy of seventeen and that it had come about in moments and for the teacher who thought not in years but in centuries the dilemma was internal. It was unnatural and would have been even more bizarre if she had seen the boy as he was in her office struggling without much success to speak Russian but that was not what she saw. Ivanya saw him far older than seventeen and she recalled that her beloved Anatola had first seen her when she was Jeremy’s age and she knew that the handsome Anatola had viewed her not as a girl but as a woman and that she gave birth to Trisha, and that the child would have blonde hair and eyes fairer than the light hazel blue that was Jeremy’s eyes in the briefest of instants in which she recognized their similarities and the deep feelings within him that she knew one day they would share a bed together and she would feel his hair as fair and thick as Trisha’s and this was just a trick of a single moment on the hottest of September days and in all the days that followed she knew that it was this one she would remember more than all the rest.
Ivanya had not counted on the girl and had dismissed her as irrelevant until she spoke to Ivanya in perfect French, Parisian French, instead of Russian provincial and then she knew as well that to dismiss this girl was folly. She was beautiful in an unconventional sort of way with her olive skin and dark eyes and hair that reached below the low cut blood-red halter that, if Ivanya was not so blinded, she would have recognized her at once as a nearly invincible opponent. But, why? What could this girl had taught him or rather what had he learned from her that made her so powerful. The girl had slender arms and slender legs, but so what? There were others far more beautiful and Ivanya remembered that at her age she herself was more beautiful and as as slender and she too had learned French though not as well and was so well regarded and educated that she won the handsome but now fading Anatola, and while she had been with many men since him, men who appreciated her still vibrant beauty and her ability to speak French, she was never as happy as when she saw Jeremy speaking his poor Russian because when she saw him, really saw him after the first awkward minutes, she saw Trisha and for those few moments she was very young again and her books and notes had no meaning and when he spoke of Chekhov, which was her favorite of all nineteenth century Russian writers, she again saw him older, no longer a boy, for in him was a soul in heat with a warm beating heart and Ivanya saw this as quite remarkable, a turn in her life, a hope as real as the dreams of Russian peasants who worked the land but saw themselves sometime in the future in the sky as free of the unyielding and cruel earth as angels rising higher and higher above their suffering, their sordid villages, their unhappy lives, their untended fences and thatched roofs all beyond the sight of the gravestones that marked the years, the tragedies, the untold and often unremembered loss and before her was only a girl of fourteen who somehow understood all of this, even what Ivanya herself could not comprehend. So, Ivanya waited again for the girl to speak first and she wished that the girl would not begin with a question but instead say something so profound that she would make sense of things, because things as they were that very moment were so inconceivable that if God himself was in the room he would laugh at their folly, which was man’s folly, so trivial yet so profound. It would be years before Ivanya would look up at the heavens without noticing its vast cruelty and envision peasants of the sky, the harsh ground they worked a mere reflection of a mortal life for which they had no further use.
As the minutes passed and although it was not quite nine-thirty and the morning was still young, the room was getting quite hot. The single office window was closed and there was no air conditioning because the building was usually empty on Saturdays. Donna went to the window and made an effort to open it but to no avail. It was stuck or locked and the window latch was broken so Donna could not tell which. Ivanya did nothing to help the girl. Ivanya was Russian and she enjoyed the heat of summer, the smell of it, and she remembered the sweat of those in Russia who worked the land, those who were no longer called peasants but retained the value of hard labor though there were fewer of them now since the peasants migrated to the cities a century before to look for work in factory towns very much like in America. Ivanya appreciated Donna’s discomfort and doubted that she would have survived old Russia that while she was slender and pretty and not frail the summer heat would have been unbearable, the long winters tortuous, the snow unending, its streams and rivers too raging and the illness, consumption or cholera would have closed her lungs and ceased the beating of her heart. But Donna sensed all this and giving up on the window felt the sudden satisfaction that her blood-red halter clung to her with sweat and so made her even more beautiful and desirable and she looked forward to being with Jeremy later in the day when they would escape the heat and later still Jeremy’s apartment windows would become prisms of light until they opened them and let in the evening’s breeze and in time the blood-red halter would be put aside and she would let him touch her slender body, delicate as her fourteen years and he would go no further than she allowed though it would be their last night together and in the morning she would leave the blood-red halter on the bed because it now belonged no other place and in no other time than that hot September week which had broken for them the day they lay under the still living needles of the pines, the leaves of the maples, that would one day bend and the oaks that would one day shatter but the blood-red halter would not break or shatter but would remain as a reminder of what they had shared, or even what they had not shared, as it was their choice and when Jeremy finally put the blood-red halter away he would never lose it, ever, in all the years he had left and he would look at it from time to time and feel the fabric and smell her scent and if she knew him at all he would recall the single solitary tear on her face and from his own eyes would fall his own solitary tear and he would remember most of all, even more than the touch of her, the smell of her, the morning of his dream and her reciting the lines from “Alice In Wonderland” because for him the story was real and sometime during that long summer Chekhov no longer mattered even when he read to her “The Lady With The Little Dog” when lovers parted only to unite less frequently with the passing of time, even then, compared to Chekhov, “Alice in Wonderland”, his dream and his wonderment of remembering the dream when the houses on Helen Street ceased to move as they walked, Jeremy knew that, at seventeen, he had fallen down a rabbit hole so far and so deeply that he needed the feel and sight of the blood-red halter top to assure him that it wasn’t a dream at all.
Ivanya said nothing still feeling satisfied with the increasing heat unaware that it no longer bothered Donna though she noticed the blood-red halter top cling to her and as she did she waited for the girl’s question or profound statement and what Donna said was a single word that was both.
“Porquoi?” Donna asked. The fourteen year old had chosen to ask the question in French believing that Ivanya would have no choice but to answer her in the same language in her provincial Russian-French dialect and Ivanya did so to not disappoint because to answer in English would not be as profound as the girl’s question demanded or, in spite of Ivanya’s indifference, deserved.
"C'est quelque chose de très russe. Vous ne comprendriez pas."
“It is something very Russian. You would not understand,”
Yet Ivanya did not intend to be condescending but to simply convey the truth as she knew it, that in nineteenth century Russia women often married not out of love but out of obligation and that these unhappy girls were always very young and that in time they would often fall in love with another yet be trapped and if they were peasant women they would be trapped forever but if they were wives of officials or landowners they would have many lovers and Ivanya, who also had many lovers, had waited for Anatola Akvonovitch to pass from her memory which at last began to happen when she first noticed the awkward Jeremy loved Chekhov and although his hair was blonde and as thick as Trisha’s and his eyes were fairer still, hazel and blue, Ivanya realized that she was no longer trapped like the peasant women of Chekhov’s short stories. And the difference in their ages was also quite Russian because in nineteenth century Russia the journeys were long and exile in Siberia quite common and the Russian steppes were endless, far more so than life, and for Ivanya it was something very Russian and for Ivanya this fourteen year old girl would not understand, though Donna understood everything, even the fallacies of Ivanya’s thoughts. Ivanya was out of place, lost not in another country, but another century where she read and studied to teach the past which no longer existed except in her books and short stories, yet Donna let her have her say because she too sometimes lived in another time in a place where her family spoke French to her as a child and she grew up to when she would wear summer dresses to please a boy of seventeen on a ball field at night within the light of only a single lamppost that hung outside her house which was both close and distant and in its own way so very Russian.