Consider this a love letter to a lady I saw only for a moment. More than 20 years ago. She was passing on a trolley car, and I was on a bus headed in the opposite direction in what was then Leningrad. I wonder if she's still living. Has she changed as much as Russia has since then? Or perhaps she's not changed much at all, as Russia hasn't.
She lingers in the mind. An older but no wiser newspaperman in Little Rock, Ark., sits down to write 800 words about Valentine's Day and there she is again. The gray day lights up, just as it did then. Every detail of the scene is still there, imprinted. From the slope of the street to the decaying old buildings in the background. I can still hear the rolling clank of the streetcar as it passes.
It's like opening an old photograph album, and finding the one picture you were looking for.
It was our last day in Leningrad on an editorial writers' tour of the Soviet Union. There was a touch of late-afternoon yellow in the clear sky. It was still early in the trip, which would go on for weeks more, but I was already growing accustomed to the uniform grayness, the long lines, the lies nobody believed, the unsmiling faces, the whole Kafkaesque experience in which nothing was as it seemed Š and then I saw her.
She was jammed on the back of a crowded tram during rush hour, looking absently at the traffic, as if returning from a long day at work doing nothing and her feet hurt. Her clothes had the too-stylish look Russian women affected then, her make-up too obvious. It was as if a carefully coiffed shop girl from the '40s in rouge and bright red lipstick had wandered into the Sovdrudgery of the '80s, the last unrecognized days of a crumbling empire. And workers' state or not, she was going to be feminine.
I see her gaze absently at the passing Intourist bus. It's a moment before she realizes that someone on it is trying to take her picture. He puts his fingers to his mouth, spreading it into a grin, trying to get her to smile for the camera. After a moment's wary hesitation, she does.
It is a breathtaking smile. Full, warm, generous, giving, maybe a little mischievous, proper but knowing, and given freely to someone who has to be a stranger forever.
The foreigner on the bus, a stranger in a very strange land, is separated from the lady on the trolley by more than just a pane of glass and the few feet between them. They're whole worlds apart, literally - East and West. They're divided by different political, social and economic systems, by mutual suspicions and bristling weapons systems. They speak different languages, and each is the product of different histories. They gaze at each other for a moment over a gulf that can never be bridged Š except by one, beatific smile.
And everything is changed. Even now, so many years later, her smile still lights up that long, weary day, and makes the noisy traffic sound like Gershwin. The dust drops off the classical ochre buildings in the background, and their Georgian lines return. The entire, elegant old city that Peter the Great dreamed, so long but a faint shadow covered by neglect, comes to life.
Thank You, the American on the bus mouths, then remembers: Spa-si-bo.
And he thinks: Leningrad, I love you. Or rather the St. Petersburg it once was. And he has this impossible thought: that one day it might be St. Petersburg again. If only time were kind and the light did not failŠ.
Then the streetcar has passed. But the sight of her remains. It is still there after all these years, rising of its own accord. She has not aged a bit. I hope she's all right.
It happens that way sometimes. It takes only a moment.
It is not a unique sensation. I realized as much when, years later, I read Richard Wilbur's brief poem, or maybe sighting, called "Transit":
A woman I have never seen before
Steps from the darkness of her town-house door
At just that crux of time when she is made
So beautiful that she or time must fade.
. . . the staggered sun
Forgets, in his confusion, how to run . . .
Still, nothing changes as her perfect feet
Click down the walk that issues in the street,
Leaving the stations of her body there
As a whip maps the countries of the air.
It happens. Just for one brief moment. And for ever. Love is fleeting, they say. And yet it tarries.