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Authors: Lara Prescott

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BOOK: The Secrets We Kept
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After that day in the garden, Boris went back and forth on the reasons to stay with Olga and the reasons to distance himself. Without Olga, he’d never experience the same highs he had when next to her, but he’d also avoid the devastating lows. He’d never feel that same burning desire, but he’d also not be subjected to her fits, her threats, her moods.

During these equivocations, Boris read a piece of
Onegin’s Journey
and wrote Pushkin’s words on a scrap of paper. He’d looked at the lines for days, contemplating whether to throw it away or include it in his novel.

My ideal now is a housewife,

My desire is for peace,

A pot of soup, and my fine self.

In the end, he decided to include it, and to end things with Olga. A week before he was to meet her at the train station, Boris asked Ira to meet him in Pushkinskaya Square, the place where he had first asked Olga to meet him seven years ago.

Boris was the first to arrive. He sat on a bench and watched an elderly man throw sunflower seeds to pigeons. When the man ran out of seeds, he threw torn bits of newspaper, hoping the birds wouldn’t know the difference and stay near him just a while longer. But after a few pecks, the birds moved on.

Ira turned the corner and spotted Boris sitting on the bench. She waved and her face broke out in a grin.

When Boris had first met Olga’s daughter she was but a girl, still in pink bows and white shoes. He remembered the first time he met Ira and Mitya at Olga’s apartment. How the conversation had been slow at first, but the children began to open up after he’d peppered them with questions:
How do you like school? Do you know any songs? Do you like cats? Do you prefer the city or the country? Do you like poetry?

“Oh, yes,” Ira had replied to the last question. “I write poems.”

“Would you be kind enough to recite one for me?”

Ira stood and recited a poem about a toy horse who came to life and galloped across Moscow only to fall into a hole in the frozen river. She’d recited it from memory with a passion and animation that took Boris aback.

Now Ira was a young woman of fifteen, wearing her mother’s silk scarf around her shoulders. Boris admired her beauty, and he was ashamed to feel the familiar stir of passion Olga had caused when he’d first seen her at
Novy Mir.

“Let’s walk,” Ira had said, taking Boris’s arm. She’d often told him that he was her
almost father,
a compliment that both delighted him and filled him with apprehension. “Such a beautiful day.” She began talking rapidly, telling him of all the preparations they were making for her mother’s return. She said they’d planned a party, that she and her grandmother had already begun preparing the feast, and that a neighbor had given them two bottles of cognac to celebrate. “Of course, besides Mama, you’ll be the guest of honor. I’m even tracking down some of those hazelnut chocolates you like.”

“I’m afraid I can’t attend,” Boris told her.

Ira stopped walking and turned to him. “What do you mean?” she asked.

“I’m not sure I can climb the stairs.” He placed his hand over his heart. “I’m still not well.”

“Mitya and I will help you. We help Babushka up and down the stairs twice a day.”

“My schedule has become quite full. With the novel. And I’m working on a new translation. I barely have enough time to comb my hair.” He patted his silver hair for the joke, but Ira didn’t laugh. Her face darkened and she asked what could be more important than seeing her mother’s return, after all she’d been through.

“I’ll never abandon your mother, nor you and Mitya. But it’s over now.”

“Your heart has gone cold after just a few years?”

“We must adjust to this new reality. You must tell your mother that we can have a friendship, but only that. After my illness, I’ve realized I need to stay with my family.”

“You’ve told me. You’ve told Mitya. You’ve told my grandmother. You’ve told my mother that
are your family.”

“You are. Of course, but—”

“Why are you telling this to me, and not my mother?”

“I need your help convincing her that this is for the best. For all of us.”

“I’ll leave it up to my mother to decide what’s best for her,” Ira said.

“Please understand—”

“I’ve never understood.” She untangled her arm from his. “Never.”

“I don’t want to leave things on these terms.”

“Then you will meet my mother at the train station with us. You will embrace her. After all she’s been through—for you. It’s the very least you can do. Then you can tell her what you need to yourself.”

Boris agreed, and they parted ways. As he watched Ira walk away, he thought how the back of her head looked so much like Olga’s. He wanted to call out to Ira—to tell her he’d been wrong, that he hadn’t meant what he’d said, that of course things would return to the way they were. How could they not?

Instead, he walked back to his bench and saw a new old man take the former old man’s place feeding the pigeons. He wondered how many years he had left until he’d take that old man’s place, his own coat pockets filled with birdseed.

Olga is likely awake now. He wonders what she looks like. Is she still beautiful? Or have the camps changed her? And what will Olga think when she sees him again? He’s lost weight, lost hair, and for the first time in his life has begun to feel his true age. The one improvement he’s made while she was gone was to get a set of porcelain veneers. But even with his perfect new teeth, when he looks in the mirror now, he sees an old man, diminished, with a weak heart.

Boris puts the thought out of mind and turns back to his work. Finally he hits upon the right sentence and the rest of the words flow. The paper fills and he drops it into the wicker basket, then pulls out another. He knows he needs to leave in the next few minutes to avoid being late, but he keeps writing.

When he looks up again from his work, the room has darkened and he can smell the chicken Zinaida is roasting. He pulls the chain of the small lamp on his desk and continues to write.

When he finally goes downstairs for dinner, Zinaida smiles at her husband. She puts out her cigarette and lights the two candles in the center of the table. She doesn’t say anything about Boris not going into Moscow, nor does he. They eat together in silence, and he feels a tension in his shoulders release that he hadn’t known he was holding. This is how he should spend the rest of his days, he thinks: writing, being productive, sharing a hot meal with his wife. He asks for some wine, and his wife fills his glass.

He tells himself not to think of Olga and what she’s doing. Is she eating the feast with her family, or has she lost her appetite? Will she sleep tonight? He tries not to think of the way her face must have looked as she saw her family standing on the platform waiting to greet her—how it looked when she realized he wasn’t there.

Boris wakes. It is still dark. He dresses and leaves the dacha for his morning walk, careful not to wake his sleeping wife. As he passes his garden, he sees a few bright spots of green poking up from the earth. He sets off down the hill, passes the stream, and goes up through the cemetery, then into the village. He finds himself waiting at the station for the morning train into Moscow.

It isn’t until he’s on Olga’s street that he makes up his mind to see her. He slowly ascends the five flights of stairs, holding the handrail as he climbs. At each landing, he tells himself he will see her for only a moment, just a moment, to tell her what he told Ira in the park. She deserves to hear it from him, he tells himself when he reaches her door. He steadies his heart by pressing his hand to his chest. He takes a deep breath before he knocks, but she opens it before he can raise his fist. It has been seven years since they met, and three since he’s seen her. She’s aged twofold in that time: her blond hair, half-tucked under a headscarf, looks as dull as straw; her curves have straightened; wrinkles now radiate from her mouth, across her forehead, and from the corners of her eyes; her skin is marked with sun spots and unfamiliar moles.

And yet he falls to his knees. She is even more beautiful than before.

Boris no longer questions what to do. He rises and kisses her—and she lets him for a moment, before stepping back. Olga retreats into her apartment but leaves the door open. Boris follows, reaching for her embrace. She holds out her hand to stop him. “Never again,” she says.

“Never again?” he asks.

“Will you keep me waiting.”

“Never,” he says. “Never.”

The Muse
The Rehabilitated Woman

How many times had I imagined our reunion? Pictured Borya waiting, hat in hand, looking up the tracks? How many times had I thought of that first embrace? Rubbed my arms and squeezed my shoulders while lying alone on my bunk to simulate how it would feel?

Three and a half years had passed since we shared a bed, and we didn’t waste time. His touch shocked me. It had been so long since I had been touched. We came together like crashing boulders that echoed across Moscow.

After, I laid my head down on his chest to listen to the beat of his heart. I joked that after two heart attacks, he had a new rhythm. “And your teeth.” His large, yellowed teeth with the gap in the middle were now gleaming white porcelain.

“You don’t like them?” he asked. He closed his mouth, and I used my pinky finger to pry it open again. He pretended to bite it.

He held on tighter, not letting go as easily as he had before. He didn’t want to leave my apartment except to write and sleep. In my absence, he’d moved full-time to his dacha in Peredelkino, which, in the years I’d been gone, had been expanded with three new rooms, gas heat, running water, a new clawfoot tub. While I was living in the barracks, he was living in a retreat in the woods most Russians could only dream of.

After Potma, I asked freely and without guilt for him to share his good fortune—money for clothing, books, food, school supplies for the children, a new bed.

There were other things too.

He left all business pertaining to his writing to me: the contracts, the speaking engagements, payments for his translation work. If an editor called for a meeting, it was I who would attend. I became his agent, his mouthpiece, the one people went to if they wanted to get to him. I finally felt as useful to him as Zinaida was. But instead of cooking and cleaning, I was the person who ushered his words out into the world. I became his emissary.

Almost daily, I’d take the train from Moscow to Peredelkino and we’d meet in the cemetery. We could be alone there to discuss
or just sit together. Our only company was the occasional widow or widower carrying plastic flowers, or the caretaker, who usually stayed in his shed smoking cigarettes and reading. Sometimes I’d bring small pieces of meat wrapped in a cloth napkin for the two large dogs who’d greet me at the iron gates.

Our place was on the sloping hill in the unused part of the cemetery. If the weather was pleasant, we’d sit on one of my scarves spread out on the grass.

“I want to be buried here in this very spot,” he told me more than once.

“Don’t be morbid.”

“I thought it romantic.”

Once, as we sat in our place on the hill, Borya spotted Zinaida walking up the main road toward their dacha. She looked like an old woman—walking slowly, her hair covered in a plastic babushka, both arms laden with shopping bags. She paused, set down the bags, and lit a cigarette. I sat up to get a better look. Borya gently pushed me back down.

That summer, to be closer to him, I rented a house across Lake Izmalkovo, a thirty-minute walk from his dacha. Borya wouldn’t live with me, but it would be a place of our own, a place for a new start.

The children took one bedroom, and I made the glassed-in veranda mine. Mama mostly stayed behind in Moscow, saying the country was only good in small doses.

How I loved that glass house. How the roots of the poplars made natural steps leading up to my door. How the veranda was all light, and how I could see Borya approach along the path while lying in bed.

But when Borya first saw the cottage, he scolded me, saying a glass house offered no privacy when the whole point of my moving closer was to afford us more. That afternoon, I took the train into the city and bought red and blue chintz. I spent the evening making drapes that would convert my room of light into a den.

That summer was hot. Wild roses erupted in pockets of reds and pinks along the path and the skies opened up with daily thunderstorms. The glass walls of my room condensed from the trapped heat. I cracked every window, but it brought little relief. Borya and I sweated through my sheets, and I joked that we could turn my bedroom into a greenhouse and grow tropical fruits like mangoes and bananas. Borya didn’t think it funny. He hated that glass house.

But Mitya loved the glass house, just as I did. He took to country life quickly, spending his days traipsing around the forest, bringing home plants and rocks and frogs in his pockets. He made a home for his frogs in a tin bucket filled with grass and pebbles and the top of a mayonnaise jar, for water. He wiped mud underneath his eyes and fashioned a bow and arrow from a stick and string to become Robin Hood.

Ira was another matter. She refused to play with her brother, having grown out of such games while I was gone. She complained about being stuck inside the tiny cottage all day while her friends were back in Moscow. “There’s nowhere to even get ice cream here,” she said. When I made her plombir ice cream with fresh mint from Borya’s garden, she spat it out. “Tastes like dirt,” she said, pushing the bowl away. “Give it to your patron.”

I scolded her for speaking ill about Borya, and she got up and left. When she didn’t come home that evening, I went to the train station and found her sitting on a bench, alone but for the station manager sweeping his broom.

“I wanted to go home,” she said. “But I didn’t have any money.”

“Home is here. With me and Mitya.”

“And Boris.”

“Yes. Boris too.”

“For now.”

Before I could say another word, Ira got up and started back toward the cottage. I sat on the bench alone, watching the station manager sweep the platform clean.

By summer’s end, when the children needed to return to Moscow for school, Borya worried I’d also leave. “I’ll be alone again,” he complained, on the brink of tears. I enjoyed it, and willed his tears to fall. And when they did, I felt a sudden shift of power. I liked the feeling, and didn’t tell him for weeks that I’d already decided to stay, even if it meant I’d see the children only on weekends. I’d always known I’d stay; I just wanted him to beg.

Ira had her things packed two days in advance of their leaving, but Mitya put it off until an hour before their train was to leave. Each item I folded and placed in his suitcase, he removed. “Mitya, please,” I said.

suitcase?” he asked.

“You know you are going home to Moscow.”

“But you said
was home.”

“There is no school here. Don’t you want to see your friends again? And Babushka?”

suitcase?” he asked again, his eyes welling.

I soothed him by kissing his forehead and promising he could take his pet frog Erik—the only one to survive the summer—back to Moscow if he promised to take very good care of him.

The children left, and I stayed in the glass house until late autumn. It wasn’t insulated for winter, so Borya ultimately got his way. I moved to another small home, even closer to Borya’s. We called it Little House, and his dacha Big House.

I took great pleasure furnishing Little House, hanging up my curtains, laying down thick red rugs. Most of my books had been confiscated and were rotting in some damp storage room in Lubyanka, so Borya restocked my library, even building the bookshelves himself.

When all was finished, I happily gave Borya the grand tour, making sure to point out
shelves. “We’ll build our garden right there come spring,” I said, pointing out the window that faced the yard.

Every space Borya and I inhabited became ours. If I said it wasn’t easy to put my old life in Moscow out of mind as well—my children, my mother, my responsibilities—I’d be lying. Once, I overheard Mitya accidentally call my mother
and instead of feeling like a betrayal, it felt like a relief.

That winter was so far from my days spent in darkness. Friends came, and the readings of
Doctor Zhivago
started up again. Every Sunday, Mitya and Ira and our friends would take the train in from Moscow. We’d dine, then Borya would read, I the hostess at his side once again.

The novel was almost finished. Borya worked at a furious pace, as he had when we’d first fallen in love. He’d write in Peredelkino in the mornings then walk to Little House. I’d help edit and retype in the afternoons.

was ever present, especially as he neared its completion. If you asked him about the weather or how he’d enjoyed his dinner or whether he thought aphids were the reason his summer squash had withered on the vine, he’d find a way to bring the conversation back to the book. Sometimes he’d even dream of Yuri and Lara. “They are as clear to me as anyone living,” he said. “It’s as if they once existed and their ghosts are speaking to me.”

But as Yuri and Lara were ever on his mind, Big House was ever on mine. He wrote there. He ate there. He slept there. She cooked for him and mended his socks. She watched television there. She played cards with the neighbors on nights he was gone. She nursed him when he had a headache or upset stomach or fretted about his heart.

She entered his study only to clean and never interrupted his work. She created the perfect conditions for his writing. Although he never told me, I believe that’s why he stayed. At the time, I told myself it was his obsession to finish the novel that kept him there.

I wondered whether they slept together. I didn’t think so, but still, the thought was an ink spot on a white tablecloth. What would they look like intertwined? His long, lean torso pressed against the folds of her belly. His strong hands lifting her breasts to the position they once occupied. Part of me wanted it to be true. In a strange, twisted way it reassured me he’d still want me when I was old. Once, I asked whether they did still sleep together, and Borya assured me it had been years. “How many?” I asked. “Did you sleep with her while I was gone?”

“Of course not. We are not that way anymore.”

“Did you sleep with anyone?” I asked. “I’ll understand if you had,” I added, though I didn’t mean it. He told me I had nothing to worry about, that my place in his life was forever cemented. That he kept company only with Lara during my absence.

And still I persisted, still I pushed. “No one?”

“He’s dead,” Borya said over the telephone.

I tightened my grip on the receiver. “Who is dead?”

He groaned as though he had stomach cramps. “Yuri,” he finally got out.

Tears came to my eyes. “He’s dead?”

“It’s done. My novel is complete.”

I arranged for the manuscript to be edited, retyped, and bound with a leather cover. I went into Moscow to pick up three copies from the printer and carried the box back on the train, the weight of Borya’s words heavy on my lap.

He was waiting for me at Little House. When I handed him the box containing his life’s work, he held it in his hands for a moment, then set it down and spun me around the room. We danced without music. As we spun, I saw myself in the oval mirror, and I, too, looked happy—but as a mother looks after she’s given birth: elated and exhausted, happy and pained, peaceful and at the same time terrified.

“Perhaps it
be published,” Borya said.

I thought of Anatoli Sergeyevich Semionov sitting at his large desk inquiring about
Doctor Zhivago.
I thought about the State’s obsession with what he had written. But I said nothing.

I scheduled meetings with every literary magazine, every editor, every publishing house, anyone who might publish
I went alone to speak on Borya’s behalf. When pushed to describe his work, defend it, or even promote it, he felt he couldn’t. “It’s as if my own words are lost somewhere between putting them to paper and seeing them in print,” he told me.

So I spoke for him.

The editors met with me, but none made promises. A few said they’d possibly be interested in publishing the poems that came at the end of the novel, but my questions about publishing the book in full were never answered directly.

Many nights, Borya waited for me on the train platform for news of how my meetings in Moscow had gone. I tried to frame everything positively, talking more excitedly than was warranted about
Novy Mir
’s interest in publishing some poems, but Borya knew better. He’d walk me back to Little House in silence, his arm tightly intertwined with mine, as if I were holding him up.

Once, on my return from another fruitless trip, Borya stopped in the middle of the road and announced he no longer believed
would be published. “You mark my words. They will not publish this novel for anything in the world.”

“You must be patient. You don’t know that yet.”

“They’ll never allow it.” He scratched his eyebrow. “Never.”

I started to think he might be right. After yet another meeting with yet another publisher, Borya met me in Moscow so that we could attend a piano recital. We arrived early and sat on a bench under a chestnut tree.

BOOK: The Secrets We Kept
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