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Authors: Lara Prescott

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BOOK: The Secrets We Kept
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And he believed I’d follow him—that I’d take the pills, that I didn’t have the strength to go on alone. At one time, I might not have. In fact, I might have been the one to first suggest it. But not now. Now I could go on. I would go on. They could put him in the ground, but not me.

I told him it would just give them what they wanted—that it was a weak man’s move. I said they’d gloat over their victory of the dead poet, the cloud dweller Stalin never finished off. Borya said he didn’t care about any of it as long as the pain would stop. “I can’t wait for their darkness to befall me. I’d rather step into the dark than be pushed,” he said.

“Things are different now that Stalin is dead. They won’t shoot you in the street.”

“You haven’t lived through it as I did. You didn’t see them pick off your friends, one by one. Do you know what it feels like to have been saved when your friends were murdered? To be the one left behind? They will come for me. I’m sure of it. They will come for us.”

I asked him to wait one more day, saying I wanted to say goodbye to Ira and Mama, that I wanted one more sunrise. In reality, I had one last plan—and if that plan didn’t work, I knew he might still be talked off the ledge. And if
that
didn’t work, I knew another sun would come up anyway, and I’d go on. It’s what Russian women do. It’s in our blood.


I found Mitya at the tavern near the train station, a small can of petrol at his side. I told him I’d never leave him. By the look in his eyes, I knew he didn’t believe me. I wept, telling him I was sorry, so sorry, and he told me he forgave me. But I could tell he said it only to get me to stop crying.

I asked if he’d accompany me to Fedin’s dacha—step one of my plan. He agreed, reluctantly. We left the tavern and trudged up the muddy hill.

I knocked at the door of the grand home of the newly anointed chair of the Writers’ Union, built from large logs stacked atop each other. No one came, so I knocked again. Fedin’s young daughter answered. Without invitation, I barged in. Mitya waited outside. Just as Katya was saying her father wasn’t home, he appeared.

“Make us some tea, Katya?” Fedin asked his daughter.

“I don’t want tea,” I said.

Fedin’s shoulders rose, then fell. “Come.” I followed him into his office, where he sat, swiveling in a leather chair. Looking like a snowy owl on his perch—with his white hair, his high widow’s peak, his arched eyebrows—he gestured for me to sit across from him.

“I’ll stand,” I said. I was so tired of sitting across from men. I got right to the point. “He will kill himself tonight if something isn’t done.”

“You mustn’t say such a thing.”

“He has the pills. I’ve delayed him, but I don’t know what more I can do.”

“You must restrain him.”

“How? It is you and the rest of the Central Committee who have done this.”

Fedin rubbed his eyes and straightened his back. “I warned him this would happen.”

“You warned him?” I shouted. “When did you warn him?”

“The day he won. I went to his dacha and told him myself that his acceptance would force the State’s hand. I told him, as a friend, that he must turn it down or face the consequences. Surely he told you of this.”

He hadn’t. Another thing he’d kept from me.

“Boris has created the abyss he stands at now,” Fedin continued. “And if he kills himself, it will be a terrible thing for the country, an even deeper wound than the ones he’s already inflicted.”

“Nothing can be done?”

He told me he’d arrange for Boris and me to meet with Polikarpov—the same official from the Culture Department with whom I’d pleaded after Borya had sent his manuscript away with the Italians. We could make our case in person to him, with the understanding that Borya would apologize for his actions.

I agreed, and I was prepared to do everything in my power to convince Borya to agree to it. I’d tell him he was selfish. I’d bring up my time in Potma. I’d tell him they’d go after me again. I’d tell him he had never given me what I’d wanted most: to be his wife, to have his child.

But in the end, there was no need.

Before I could ask, Borya informed me he’d already settled the matter. He’d sent two telegrams: one to Stockholm, declining the Prize, and one to the Kremlin, letting them know. The Nobel would not be his.

“They’re coming for me, Olga. I can feel it. Even when I’m writing in my study, I can feel them watching. It won’t be long now. One day, you’ll wait for me and I’ll never come.”

WEST
December 1958
CHAPTER 25
The Swallow
The Informant
THE DEFECTOR

According to my former employer, one can sum up the entire spectrum of human motivations with a formula called MICE: Money, Ideology, Compromise, Ego. I wondered how the other side would assess me. Did they have their own formula? Did they think through these things with more nuance?

The woman who’d told me about Henry hadn’t yet appeared again, but I knew she would in time. Meanwhile, I sold off two of my favorite Hermès scarves and my remaining copies of
Zhivago.
I did keep one, though, the English edition I failed to return at Le Mistral—which I placed in the nightstand next to my bed, where one might find a Bible in an American hotel.

I no longer spent my days in my room; I no longer mourned the person I used to be. Mornings, I went to the Jardin des Tuileries—walking the gravel corridors of perfectly manicured trees, feeding the ducks and swans at the pond, pulling a green chair into a spot of sun to read. In the afternoons, as the days got shorter, I sat at every terrace on rue de la Huchette, sampling each café’s selection of mulled wine. I made friends with the barman at Le Caveau just so I could sit on one of the plush red couches and listen to Sacha Distel croon night after night.

Wherever I was, she was never far from my mind. I kept waiting for the day when I’d wake up and my first thought wouldn’t be of her. The worst was when I dreamed of her. How one moment we were together, only to wake and feel the loss all over again. Sometimes I’d feel a spark run across my body, convinced Irina must’ve been thinking of me at that exact moment. Silly.

On her birthday, I wanted to call—even just to hear her answer—but didn’t. Instead, I opened the nightstand drawer, removed the book, and, for the first time, began to read.

On they went, singing “Rest Eternal,” and whenever they stopped, their feet, the horses, and the gusts of wind seemed to carry on their singing.

His words grabbed hold of my wrist. I knew the way a feeling can linger after a song ends. I shut the book and went out onto my balcony, which was only big enough for a single chair. I sat and opened the book again.

When I read the part where Yuri reunites with Lara, in the battlefield hospital, and realized that this book—this novel they deemed a weapon—was really a love story, I wanted to close it once more. But I didn’t. I read until the sun had faded into a purple halo over the tops of the buildings. I read until the streetlights turned on and I had to squint to make out the sentences. When it became too dark, I went back inside. Wrapping myself in my robe, I lay down and continued to read—until I fell asleep, my hand an accidental bookmark.

When I awoke, it was nearly midnight and I was hungry. I dressed and put the book into my purse.

As I crossed the hotel lobby, I saw the woman from the bookshop seated on a chaise longue, beneath a portrait of Flaubert. Impeccably dressed in Chanel tweed, her hair was still perfectly finger-waved, albeit two shades lighter than it was when she told me about Henry. When she saw me, she got up without making eye contact and left.

We walked for what must have been twenty minutes, the woman never looking back. Eventually, we came to a stop at the Café de Flore, on the boulevard Saint-Germain. The café’s awning dripped with white Christmas lights. Its terrace was empty, and its snow-laden wicker chairs looked as if they were wearing white fur coats. A torn red, white, and blue
Vive de Gaulle
banner hung from the wrought iron balcony on the second floor.

Inside, the woman kissed both my cheeks again and left, but not before pointing to a table in the back, where a man I recognized was waiting.

I knew they’d come, but I wasn’t expecting it to be him.

He stood to greet me, the too-small tortoiseshell glasses he’d worn to Feltrinelli’s party gone.
“Ciao, bella,”
he said, his Italian accent also gone, replaced with a Russian one. He reached for my hand and kissed it. “Pleasure seeing you again. I suppose you’ve come to have your dresses cleaned?”

“Possibly.”

We sat and he handed me a menu. “Order whatever you’d like.” He raised a finger. “One cannot subsist on pain au chocolat alone.” He already had an open bottle of white wine and a silver tray of untouched snails in front of him, so I ordered a croque monsieur from the crisp-collared waiter and waited for him to speak.

He drank the last of the wine and signaled the waiter for another bottle. “I prefer women to men and wine to both,” he joked. Communist or capitalist, men are still men. “We wanted to thank you in person,” he continued. “For your generosity.”

“Did you find it useful?”

“Oh, yes. A talker, that one. Very…how do you say…”

“Social?”

“Yes! Exactly. Social.”

I didn’t ask for details about what happened to Henry Rennet, and I didn’t want to know. For a year, I’d wanted revenge more than I’d ever wanted anything. And after he’d gotten me fired, I not only wanted to destroy him, I wanted to burn the whole thing to the ground. But I felt only a minor relief at the confirmation of Henry’s fate. Anger is a poor replacement for sadness; like cotton candy, the sweetness of revenge disintegrates immediately. And now that it was gone, what did I have left to keep me going?

The waiter returned with my food, and as my new friend ate his snails, he laid it all out for me in as few words as possible.

“How long will you be in Paris?” he asked.

“I have no return ticket.”

He dipped a snail into a dish of melted butter. “Good! You should do some traveling. See the world. There’s so much a woman like you can do. The world is yours for the taking.”

“Hard to take it with limited funds, though.”

“Ah.” He slurped down a snail and pointed his two-pronged fork at me. “But I can tell you are a resourceful woman. And one who deserves whatever she asks for.”

“I’m not sure that’s the case anymore.”

“I assure you it is. You undervalue yourself. Maybe less perceptive men can’t see it, but I can. As Emerson said, one must be an
opener of doors.

Since arriving in Paris, I’d walked past the big black doors within the high cement wall enclosing the Hôtel d’Estrées several times. Each time, I’d look up and see the red flag with its gold hammer and sickle and wonder: What would it be like to walk in as one person and out as another? Here was my invitation to find out.

I thought of Henry Rennet dancing me through the restaurant lobby, then opening the coatroom door behind me. I thought of Anderson passing by, after, without a word—then seated at his big mahogany desk telling me I was no longer a
desirable asset
and how he hated to say it but I’d become
too much of a risk
to keep on. I thought of Frank passing me in the hallway as I left HQ for the last time without so much as a handshake.

I thought of Irina—the first time I saw her, and the last. I’d planned to talk to her after her mother’s funeral, to comfort her, to hold her, to tell her everything. But instead of going to the cemetery, I went to Georgetown and sat through the second half of
The Quiet American,
alone.

I still had the note I’d planned to slip her after the funeral in my pocket. The words I wrote had worn completely away from constantly being rubbed between my fingers as I walked the streets of Paris. But I remembered what I’d written, the words I never gave her, the truth I’d kept to myself.

And then there was the truth I kept
from
myself. I’d boarded the plane to Paris convinced there was no alternative. But that first night, the
what ifs
surrounded me like a cloud of gnats. I imagined the whitewashed house in New England that Irina and I could’ve moved to—its yellow door and porch swing and bay window overlooking the Atlantic. I imagined us going into town each morning for coffee and doughnuts, the townsfolk thinking we were roommates. As I thought of all the paths I didn’t take, the loss came over me like a lead blanket.

I thought of the book in the purse sitting next to me. How did it end? Do Yuri and Lara end up together? Or do they die alone and miserable?

The waiter took our plates and asked if he could get us anything else.

“A bottle of champagne, perhaps?” my new friend asked, looking at me, not the waiter.

I raised my glass. “When in Paris.”

BOOK: The Secrets We Kept
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