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.
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 ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads. 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 ... except by one, beatific smile.
Then everything is changed. Her smile still lights up that long-ago, weary day, and makes the noisy traffic sound like Gershwin. The dust and rust drops off the classical ochre buildings in the background, and their original Georgian lines return. The elegant old city that Peter the Great had dreamed, then built to give his empire a warm-water port on the Baltic, had long ago become but a faint shadow covered by decades of neglect, courtesy of the usual Sov-management. But in the reflection of her smile, old St. Petersburg would come to life again, newborn. The dream city lived again.
Thank you, the American on the bus thinks, then mouths the Russian for thank you: Spa-si-bo.
And he thinks: Leningrad, I love you. Or rather the St. Petersburg it once was. The stranger on the bus has this impossible thought: that one day this might be St. Petersburg again. If only time were kind and the light did not fail. ... Then the streetcar has passed. And the lady is gone, and with her the light.
But the sight of her stays, imprinted on his eyes, and in his mind. Her image is still there after all these years, rising of its own accord. She hasn't changed a bit. I hope she's all right.
Love is fleeting, they say. And yet it tarries.