Consider this a love letter to a lady I saw only for a moment. Thirty years ago. She was passing on a trolley car, and I was on a bus headed in the opposite direction. It was in a city called Leningrad back then. I wonder if she's still living. Has she changed as much as Russia has since? Or maybe she hasn't changed very much at all, as Russia hasn't.
She lingers in the mind. Today 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, permanently engraved. 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 ... 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. You could tell. But workers' state or not, she was going to be feminine. Her clothes had the too-stylish look Russian women affected then, her make-up too obvious. It was as if a well-coiffed shop girl from the '40s in rouge and bright red lipstick had wandered into the Sovdrudgery of the '80s. It was the fall of 1983, in the last decade of a crumbling empire. No one could know it then, but in 10 years, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics would be gone.
Even now, after all these years, 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 an idiotic 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.