Лариса Матрос. BEHIND THE STAIRCASE




Writers Under The Arch 1995, St.Louis

Anna leaned in front of the open window of the car, closed her eyes and tried to imagine the coining meeting with Rudik-.-.Blowing from. the ocean was a special caressing wind, (typical only for a summer evening in a sea climate) which combined and mixed the sun-heat with the salt sea-water.
More than twenty years ago, the same breeze had played with the silk of her flared skirt, uncovering her slim, tanned legs, which had carried her tirelessly around the pedestal of the A. E. Richeliett's (2) monument on the top of the Potyomkinskaya Staircase (3). The irrepressible laughter prevented her from running, and finally, let her down, when she had stumbled without strength and found herself in Rudik's arms. With all the strength of his youthful body hardened by sport, he had embraced her so she could not move. Raised by the wind, her flared skirt soared like the wings of a bird and rushed to help her escape from the captivity of his arms.
"Anna, Arnushka, Annyuta, I love you. I love you. I ask you, I beg you, don't run away," whispered Rudik, embracing her harder and harder. Her face was pressed near his heart, whose strong beats muffled his voice and resonated through her body with a feeling she had never had before, which made her want to cry.
"Let me go! Do you hear me? Let me go!" She was resisting him. Then she took advantage of the sudden clumsiness, caused by his heartbeat, and darted down the stairway. After passing two flights of stairs, she stopped and sat down, covering her knees with her arms and laying her head on them. Rudik dragged himself guiltily along, and sat down next to her.
They lived in the same neighborhood, studied at the same class, and had been best friends from early childhood. Once their parents had permitted them to visit downtown alone without adults, the Potyomkinskaya Staircase became their favorite place. They competed in walking up and down stairs. They counted steps, thousands of times, and every time they missed one of the 192 steps or found an extra one, they started all over again.
"What magic is this staircase," exclaimed Rudik, breaking the awkward silence. "If you look upstairs behind the staircase, you can see our glorious city. If you look down behind the staircase, there is the sea. If I would build a cottage right here, near Richeliett, and live there, it would be so nice, right? I would live next to the staircase and feel I am connected with all the world through it! If Odessa would not have anything else, I would still love it just because of the staircase! Listen, Anna," Rudik exclaimed. He suddendy stood up, then kneeled near her legs. "I want us to swear we will always come to our staircase at my birthday, despite anything, even after ten, twenty, ...fifty years."

Anna had laughted as if she forgot about everything. Then she got up regally, placed her hands on her hips and raised her head proudly. "Anna," Rudik proclaimed in theatrical manner, trained at the drama class. 'Today, on my 15th birthday, under such a wonderful sparkling reflection of the moon in the sea, in front of Odessa's famous governor, A. E. Richelliett, who showed such a great love of citizens they built this beautiful monument, I swear forever..."
"Come on, Rudka! My mom is right to call you Don Quixote. You always have your fantasies. It is time for you to become an adult. You will get your passport (4) soon."
Six years later, exactly the same breeze had played with her flared skirt, which she tried to tame, embracing the skirt and her knees with her arms, sitting on the second flight of the stairs. The breeze was blowing her tears away and traitorously spreading the mascara on her face.
"Anna, Annushka, please understand, I cannot live without you," repeated Rudik over and over again, sitting below her, resting his head against her knees. "Ibegyou to leave, leave with us. You will be a member of our family, and you will never feel we have a different nationality (5). I promise you, I swear, I will do everything to make you happy. There is still time to get married here, and there we will have children, which will be born American citizens. Imagine, our son could be an American president!"
"I have already told you everything. I cannot and do not want to move anywhere, and I have no right to do this. What would happen to my father? He has such high status. My parents would not forgive me for this."
" But what would happen if we had gotten married when we were eighteen, when I proposed to you the first time? What would you do? Would you not move with your husband? But, I knew we would not get married, because your mom did not consider me a good enough groom for you."
"Many people say, a first love rarely leads to marriage," Anna tried to stop her sobbing with a playful tone. "So, statistics show, nothing wrong is going to happen to you. Be happy." Suddenly she streaked to the boulevard, ran down to the park and hid in the bushes. She saw Rudik looking for her, suffering.
Since then they had no contact with one another for twenty years.
Now, she could not explain to herself why she had decided to call Rudik right away, when she came on a first visit for a business trip to the USA. Maybe because of her hard work, which had brought her a great success and title of Professor, together with tiredness and satisfaction. The constant hard work had also caused a keen desire to experience something, to feel herself just a woman, desire the constant male attention, admiration, care, chivalrous patronage, daily surprises, confirming love and devotion. Everything she obtained from Rudik since she had started considering herself a female. Now she knew for sure this is what she had been looking for in men all those years. After Rudolf's departure she had boyfriends, marriage without children, without happiness.
Once Anne had settled in the hotel, she called her friends to leam Rudik's phone number. However, the first time when shepicked up the
receiver, she hung up, unready to talk. Only the third time she dialed the number did she wait for a reply. Rudik listened to her through the receiver and responded as if he was not surprised by her call. Obviously, the friends who had given her his phone number had informed him of her arrival. Without hesitation, Rudolf invited her to a party the next day. He said it would be a big reception, he would be busy preparing and his nephew would drive her to his
house.
The nephew drove with confidence, in spite of traffic. He was silent all
the way. The car stopped near a small staircase which was attached to a hill covered with grass. The good looking two-story house was on the hill. "Here we are," the nephew said, and got out of the car quickly to open the door for the euest. A big, stout, grey-haired man came out of the house and moved down the staircase. Only when he approached Anna, did she recognize Rudik. He hugged her with unhidden excitement, kissed her, took her arm and led her up to the house, without saying a word. On the hill stood a beautiful, well-dressed/
tall, stout woman.
"This is Masha, my wife," Rudik said. Masha hugged and kissed Anna,
as a close friend.
"Welcome," Masha said, and led her to the house. ""Уои will see Odessians who live here," said Rudik, pointing to the table, which was seen in the next room-
"Well, we have a big Odessian company. We often get together and tell jokes all evening, like in Odessa. Even here we do not forget we grew up in the city which is considered a capital of humor," Rudik said.
"Oh, it's eight o'clock already. They are just about to arrive," Masha said. "We could have scheduled the party in two days, onSaturday, but Rudik's birthday is today, and I never postpone..."
"Rudik, is that right!" exclaimed Anna. She came dose to hug him and said, "What a coincidence! Sorry I forgot."
"Rudik told me a lot about you," said Masha, breaking a pause. "Since you were studying in the same class with Rudik, I expected to find you different. You are like a young girl, so small and thin. How do you do it? As for me, I grew stout," concluded Masha, making excuses, pressing her abdomen as if she wanted to drive it inside her body.
"It is not her fault, " Rudik inserted cheerfully. "It is because of our bakery. We will show it to you. There is such tasty stuff, you cannot resist. That is why we both grew stout. Our bakery is not only a sweet paradise. It is also an art and architectural studio."
At that moment, through the window Rudik noticed approaching cars and moved to open doors. The crowd of cheerful well-dressed people came inside. All were about Rudik's and Masha's age, except one very beautiful young lady, about seventeen years old, who came with her parents. The newcomers looked like their meetings in Rudik's house were frequent events. They took seats on sofas, chairs, and the floor in the living room, evalutating each other and the guest. Some faces dimly reminded Anna of girls and boys from her Odessa's street, but most of them were strangers to her.
The guests warmly welcomed Anna, who was solemnly introduced by Rudik. Then they started loudly and jokingly to discuss their everyday concerns: cars, houses, work, relations in the family and at work, which were common components of their life and incomprehensible to Anna. She sat, turning her head with a friendly smile. But she felt out of place here, which some guests tried to dispel by directing a smile to her while they talked with each other.
Rudolf and Masha came out from a kitchen and started to serve drinks on silver trays, and goodies: roast nuts, salt crackers, cheese. Rudolf did not know how to involve Anna in the hubbub. He brought a tray to her and said playfully, "They are called appetizers here. At first I could not understand it. Remember how it was in Russia - right away at the table with drinks, food, toast! But now I even like it. First we sit in the family room, loaded with strong drinks, chatting, become acquainted, and after that - sit at table. You can conclude in advance, which people you want to sit next to at the table."
"Yes, yes," a bright, thin, bleached blond, sitting in a chair interrupted him cheerfully. "It is very important to get used to your neighbor. Sometimes the hostess seats guests around the table, but I for example, never sit next to Rudik to save my life. His cologne makes me sick. Generally speaking, everybody here in America likes to smell "strongly" of something. Those deodorants, perfumes..."
"Do you prefer the smell of sweat as, for example, was in Odessa's buses during the hot summer, when most people were in synthetic wear?" one guest laughed.
"I don't know. I would prefer you to smell of sweat, rather than the cologne. Once you leave my house, I have to ventilate it all night."
"Yes, as for me, I like everything natural," said a stout, bright-colored blond, who was obviously the mother of the young lady. "A body should be fresh, then it will have a scent of its own. Those odors can only veil..."
" As a matter of fact, I read," interrupted a flirty, slender brunette, "a male sweat even inspires women..."
"Well, dear ladies," exclaimed the fat man with a loud laugh, "now I know what to do to attract your attention."
Suddenly, the tall man with a big shock of black and white hair, sitting on the floor next to a coffee table, interrupted the laughter and asked seriously:
"Anna, why would you not move to America? You see how we live here merrily and friendly. Here, are almost all our schoolmates!"
"Well, it would be very difficult for Anna to move now," said Masha, as if she was informed all about Anna's life. "It would be much better if she had moved seventeen years ago, like most of us." (During Masha's words, Anna caught the passing glance form Rudolf.) "Now she is a professor, she has status. Here she would start all over. There are so many scientists who cannot find a job, especially in humanitarian areas."
"What does it mean to be a professor!" interrupted the same man. "Here it is not necessary to be a professor. Here money is the main thing. If you can make money...
you can, for example, open a restarurant.."
"Oh! Don't listen to them!" interrupted the girl emotionally, sitting in front of Anna. "Here I have a friend, she is an American, a student. We were working together in a kitchen of a restaurant. Her father is a professor in a university. Do you know how proud she was? And how much respect she has frtem all, when she let us know who her father is! So, don't listen to them. I can assure you here education and intellect are more important than money. If you
move here..."
"Why don't you study, if you think an education is important here?
the girl's mother interrupted her.
"As for me, I don't want anything here. I want there. There is my
home," said the young girL
"Well, Lubochka! You are here already half a year. It's time already to
palm down," said the old woman, sitting next to the girl.
"I don't want to calm down. I want home. I was forced to move out." "You see, she had a boyfriend there," inserted her mother, demonstrating the absolute stupidity in the relation with her daughter.
Anna looked at the girl with a feeling of compassion. "You know what," said a slender older man cheerfully, sitting at the other side of the girl. Obviously, he wanted to change the theme of the conversation. He stood up, holding his glass of wine. "Since we began talking about money, I suggest a toast. Do you remember the following anecdote of "Armenian radio": Someone asks Armenian radio "Can a wife make her husband a millionaire?" On the next day radio answered, " Yes, she can, but only if he is a billionaire." All laughed. " My toast," continued the man, "is the following, let our wives always make us millionaires. Even if money is not prestigious, it's still better to have more."
Everybody laughed together and then Rudolf and Masha invited all guests to the table. The guests went to the dining room/ where tables were set. Once they got in, all of them uttered together, "Oh, my gosh!" In front of them, in the middle of the big, nice, set table, there was a miniature Potyomkinskaya Staircase. The staircase, the parapets, were covered with grey glaze, which looked like granite. On the top landing, there was the small chocolate figure, whose silhouette exactly replicating Richeliett's monument.
Rudolf, with excitement came to Anna and said quietly, "It was made by masters from our bakery. Anna, look, there are 192 steps, ten landing and flights. The scale was observed completely." Anna could not find words. She sat at the table silently/ as all the other guests were loudly discussing memories of the periods of their lives related to the staircase.
Everybody started to eat the dinner quickly/because theywere impatient to taste the cake. The hostess seeing that, decided to skip the break they usually had before dessert. After finishing the main meal, the hostess served champagne and started to cut the cake. Once a knife touched the staircase, its parts turned into biscuit-chocolate cakes. As the staircase's size was reduced and dessert plates were filled with its pieces, Anna felt sorrow. She looked at the guests, nipping off parts of the staircase with their spoons and she wanted to cry. At that moment she felt the anxious stare of Rudolf. She did not wish to meet his gaze and inclined her head, pretending she was placing a napkin on her dress. Suddenly, the quiet Rudik's voice sounded. His intonations were discordant with the atmosphere of revelry at the table. Anna raised her head and saw Rudolf, standing with his champagne glass. The froth was splashing from the glass because his hand was shaking and he couldn't stop it.
"My friends!" Rudolf said seriously, directing his thoughtful look into the distance. "A long time ago I swore, that every birthday I would come to Potyomkimskaya Staircase, which was connected with the most glorious moments of my youth, but my fate has commanded different. And now looking at this small copy of the favorite place of my youth, I thought that a human invented staircases to make it easier to transfer from one place ot another. A staircase is a symbol of human's desire to move. I wish for all of us to have a staircase which at all times will connect us with our roots.
Anna was listening to Rudolf, not taking her eyes off him. The thin layer of a frozen teardrop inher eyes removed the age mutation in Rudolf's image and in front of her there was standing that same Rudolf, with whom she raced on the staircase twenty years ago.

Лариса Матрос. BEHIND THE STAIRCASE