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It was our first morning in New York, together again, after some time apart, very much in love. You, pushing thirty, a rising star at a famed university, a part of the scene; me, still in college, for the first time in America, full of hopes. I remember our outfits: nineteen ninety-three, the time of platform boots – you had on Air Jordans – tapered legs on your overalls with straps carefully assembled to hang down. We dressed with care then. Fashion is a merry-go-round, isn’t it? My children covet the cat-eyed shades as much as I fancied them, and I wonder if yours inherited your love for unbuttoned shirts over graphic tees.
Ah, how grown up and mature you appeared to me! You had a small rental on Bank Street, its very end, a few yards away from West Street – you, its single occupant. How otherworldly to have a place of your own seemed to me then – me, who knew nothing of kitchens and bathrooms that were not shared with other residents (they lined up when a demand on the use was too high), traces of their existences always present on the kitchen stove, in the bathtub, at the front door, by the phone. How extraordinary, in every way superior, everything looked to me in that New York: the grange of subway entrances was a true urban grit and the silver-clad brick underneath graffiti felt enlivened compared to the naked concrete of the middies in which my family lived.
It was quarter past eight when we stepped into the city out of the dimness of the basement. The sun blinded us. August had just turned into September, but autumn had not yet tinted the greens and blues around us and the ground breathed warmth. We were two lovers enthralled by one another, everything felt great, things were great, I was giddy with anticipation, excited to be introduced to the city. No place had ever captured my imagination more than New York, and now I was there – here! – in the city! – walking by your side, sensing your furtive glances at me, feeling elated.
The sky presented not a cloud, and a sliver of water the color of mercury glittered at the end of the street. Is it the great Hudson? I gasped, you nodded, I wowed and held you by the wrist (we were still at the stage when skin-to-skin sent electric charges, giving an extra beat to my already racing heart). You did not let me recover and pulled me gently around. There, hovering above the brownstones and red bricks of Greenwich Village, some distance away from us, in that same bright sun shone a crown. A crown! In the sky! Seven radiating arches mounted behind one another ascended in a spire, their stainless-steel cladding burned my eyes. What a great greatness upon grandeur! My first skyscraper! Van Alen’s masterpiece pierced my heart and injected it with the sublime. I came close to an overdose but you – you! – came to my rescue. You took my hand and ushered us into a French bistro, into the safety of its tiled interior. Let’s have breakfast, I am famished! – and just as my senses quieted a waiter shook them wild again. Another love potion was placed before me: coffee! Oh coffee that only New York, that bubbly cauldron of many cultures, can brew: French press/Italian espresso, pour-over/pressurized, pounded/roller-grind, Arabica/Hawaiian Kona, whole milk/half-and-half/soy, 80 cents/8 dollars – all ready to hit my palate, familiar with only one kind of coffee, the instant kind. And served how! You looked at me with a wicked smile over the rim of your cup when I lifted the simple white vessel that was brought to me: coffee in a bowl? What is it? Travesty or ingenuity?
Half past nine and we were back on the street flooded with people. Energized, we met its charge. Plumbers, office managers, salesclerks, accountants walked hurriedly past us hailing taxis, stepping onto buses, scurrying to the subway. The chatter of voices rising from the sidewalk, the holler of ambulances rushing past, the screeches of cabs pulling over for passengers, honks of buses interrupted in their measured flow – all the sounds came together as a rhythm of sorts. Smells colonized our senses. Vanilla, garlic, sewage, frying oil, laundry detergent, rotting garbage, stench and aroma whiffs ebbed and flowed and swaddled us. We kept walking: 10th Avenue, New York Pizza, Post No Bills, 99c, Tuxedo To Rent, Walgreens, ATM, Union Bank, New York Nails, Curb Your Dog, Taxi Only, 6th Ave SE Exit Only, Church of the Immaculate Conception, Union Square, 4566LNQRW… You hid your joy the way you hid all your vulnerabilities: behind standoffishness. I covered my insecurity with affected cockiness: Was this your great university, The New School? But you’re such an old school! A vendor stood on the corner of W. 14th Street with a shiny metal cart and a large umbrella. From underneath rose the yellow smoke of roasting chestnuts next to an oversized coffeevac and a display of donuts. Coca Cola. The white scribble across the red field gave me a moment of respite, an iconic image, an early messenger of the change that was taking hold of my hometown – but roasting chestnuts, in the street, in the heart of Manhattan? Selling them to passersby to eat? I looked at you in disbelief and you offered to buy some. I held the paper cone in both hands, not knowing what to do with them.
Noon, and we were crossing Alphabet City. ABCDEFG… Next time, won’t you sing with me… I hummed, taking steps twice as quickly with the LMNO, tripping over them faster, like I’d done in the language school right before I came. I looked up at you, inviting – expecting – you to join, but you didn’t chime in, were not pulled into my play. Instead, you halted it. We were coming to an intersection, broad and busy, six lanes filled with trucks and cars to the curb. There you took me by both shoulders – not a gentle hold but a firm grip – and turned me ninety degrees. What was it, another river you wanted me to see? I suddenly felt resistant, stubborn, disobedient. I tried to worm myself out of your hold. I wiggled my shoulders. I pulled forward. You didn’t let me loose. You held me steady, fixed. Look, up there – you stretched out your hand and directed an index finger towards the sky. I let my eyes run along the line it charted. When they reached the terminus I fell through the black hole that suddenly opened in my reality.
Lenin! A statue of Lenin was drifting in the sky. So immediately recognizable, a silhouette wrapped in unspeakable intimacy, a memory pole. It was standing on the rooftop of a building (I could see it), but the effect was of flight, chunks of white clouds, that now appeared, moving rapidly in the background. Lenin, not a person but an icon, cast in stone, a monument elevated to the eleventh floor of a midrise, a monumental shadow above a bustling street. What was he doing there, floating in heavens foreign to him, his country – my country – in shambles? How did this Lenin travel here? Was he bought and boxed, transported and now displayed as a trophy, visible reassurance to a winner rewriting history? Or maybe, he was brought and installed as a metaphorical end of that history, soon to become part of the rubble heap – I’d read this somewhere – growing sky high from the storm called progress that had been blowing from Paradise. But where, then, was this Paradise? Had I not already arrived in it?
The look on your face as you turned to me was: didn’t I just show you something unexpected-startling-surprising? The glare I sent back was a scream: not him-not here-not again! It was already a few years since the Berlin Wall had fallen, and back home, the televised spectacle of Lenin statues toppled with the vigor of a sick person ingesting medicine he’s certain will cure him was wearing off. Few could resist the allure of the vengeful act after being told they had been outright duped, and I was certainly not an exception. But the ideological fatigue was only a frothy layer on the emotive cocktail that was splattering in my suddenly emptied ribcage. Right beneath it, and in contrast to my displeasure, floated a comforting familiarity – as when, in a moment of a complete estrangement, we welcome a detested relative. Didn’t I also love Grandpa Lenin? Didn’t I practice, in grade four, drawing his image, tracing the contour of his profile, striving to achieve a semblance between the awkward stroke coming from my hand and the mastery of icons that filled the public space around me? The outline of his bold forehead and his bearded chin were stored somewhere in me. Saddled with them, I stood, motionless, on the side of the street, and there unfolded in me an unsettling emotional inkling of uncertainty, a pang.
The shock was this: the statue was and wasn’t Lenin, and consequently New York was and wasn’t foreign, and you – what then were you? Lenin was floating in the alien to him – to me – sky in celestial ignorance. It was Lenin – it was impossible not to recognize the iconic extension of the right hand – and it still wasn’t, because the coffee we’d had and the chestnuts that had earlier warmed my hands did not align with the statue or the gesture. Together, they’d never form a reality, and did I ever want them to? The hand, I knew, was meant to direct one’s gaze to an indefinite, but brighter future, but from where I stood – the side of an American street whose name, you said, was pronounced au – the future I came for and wanted looked very different.
At the center of my emotional concoction, however, floated the most unexpected impression. It was my image of you. The thickness of the confection in which it swam could still hide an early thinning of the contour, but a rupture had already formed. Its widening hadn’t yet started, but a sudden annoyance at your hands placed on my shoulders, a new irritation at your incessant commentary, the obligation to tag along that I felt suddenly and so sharply – all of these announced its inadvertent coming. I looked up at Lenin, then you, with your outstretched hand. You too envisioned a future for me. You lured me into an enclosure, within which you took charge, scripted scripts, designed a stage. Benevolent, maybe, but a ruler, nevertheless.
Quarter past twelve. I turned around and kissed you on the mouth, a hard-pressed kiss, making sure that my teeth left a mark on your lips.
Olga Sezneva is a Russian-born sociologist educated in the U.S. (NYU), currently living in Amsterdam. In 2018, she decided that it was time to put her burning desire to write creative non-fiction, and then, fiction, to practice. Olga never received formal training in creative writing or in the English language. Her dear friend and collaborator Helen Faller often brings the finesse to Olga's writing.