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The Bridges Home

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It is 1940. Fifteen years ago, she thought he had already left when the door clicked closed. But what she had not known was that he could not resist turning around for just a second when he was outside, though he had to do so discreetly for he could not let her see how hard this was for him.

The last gleams of sunset hit the center of the grimy window and there was just enough light to outline the silhouette of the one person who mattered. Kira Argounova sat on the crumply mattress, for the first time, completely and utterly alone. But her haughty profile looked straight ahead into the future as always--a future that would no longer include him in its chapters. The view from the side of the slushy road showed dust dancing around her head, forming a halo around her tired face. From down the street, Leo Kovalensky took a few precious seconds to memorize all of her--everything from the gentle curve of her neck to her back, erect with the grace and authority that he had never been able to master but had always admired from afar. Then he forced himself to tear his eyes from the window and trudge his tired feet toward the direction of Nikolaevsky train station, its walls endlessly patch worked with a collage of red slogans.

We will see each other someday. Just not here. Not in this hell-on-earth, he thought as he walked. But the heart always knows what the mind does not and right then, Leo’s heart told him that he had just said goodbye forever.

The pavement shivered in the dimming light, still damp from a late afternoon drizzle. Still, the streets were filled with gray people dressed in colorful clothes that looked to belong more to a theater troupe than to common workers. Their faces, worn as leather and engraved with dust and desperation, matched the hue of the sky, which had turned from a dull gold to a deep haze. They pasted fake smiles over perpetual frowns and wound crimson bandanas into their hair while holding in their bound hands the posters of yellow wheat and of burly peasants raising their bulky fists. If Leo had not spent his entire life in Petrograd--this crummy metropolitan built upon bloody swamps that sucked away life and kept human bones--laughter might have been sitting upon his lips. But then pedestrian eyes, which were dark and stormy, sunken and bloodshot with adversity, would make him avert his own.

The smell of carbolic acid stung his nostrils as he entered the train station. The walls of plaster crumbled off, leaving fist-sized craters. Loud slogans were painted along benches, leaving dirty trails of red and black. Murky windows were riddled with holes, surrounded with the sunburst patterns of shot glass. Leo waited impatiently for the ticket collector, feeling strength seep away from his pores like a hollow drain. He would have to lie, he knew this. But he had to lie well and hand a Soviet member a forged passport. It was a crime punishable by death but that was the last thing on his mind.

Aboard the train, the engine started with a roar. Cramped, Leo watched the city go by uncomfortably until the countryside opened up like a new book. The trees, grass, and water flew by faster than time. Everything was a green blur, morphing with the heavy clouds to produce a scrambled artist's palette. He hummed to himself, the little foxtrot tune "John Gray" that everyone knew.

"Shut up, comrade," a lady behind him hissed. Leo refused, and whistled louder just to spite her. Who knows how many hours I have? Might as well enjoy my tunes. The thought brought him to Kira again, who was fifty kilometers away and had scolded his excuses nights before he had told her that he was leaving for good.

“Something that makes me happy is far from a waste!” Leo had said on evening into the candlelight, the dying flame throwing caricatured shadows across his face.

“You bought a crystal goblet for the price of five loaves of bread! And then you threw it on the ground to shatter on purpose! Tell me, how that is not wasting?” she had responded, her wide eyes flashing with a flare of red anger. He had not said another word. He had not wanted to tell her that he bought the ware for her, that he wanted her to be happy, and that he broke it out of frustration that she had not been happy.

A swift kick in the shins had brought him back to his uncomfortable seat on the train. Scowling, he kicked back, his pride overcoming all reason. There were way too many people in the compartment so Leo was not sure who whimpered in response. Bodies that smelled of sweat and grime were practically on top of each other, each bent figure locking into the curves of its neighbors like crooked puzzle pieces. Leo distinctly remembered falling asleep in the crowd, the song "John Gray" stuck on replay in his head.

But now it is 1940. Leo Kovalensky has just retraced his footsteps and has returned to the doorsteps of the hell-on-earth he spent years trying to escape. He cannot help but feel that a little piece of him is missing, a lost ghost in Petrograd.

The train, this time going the opposite direction it did fifteen years before, rolls to a gentle stop. Leo is pushed forward by impatient travelers toward the door. His foot, tangling up with the broken suitcase in his hand, hangs over the space of the wooden boards of the rickety platform for just a second. Then the foot tentatively plants itself on the ground and Leo is home again.

Nothing has changed. The same red banner hollers above his head, though much dirtier than before: "Proletarians of the World, Unite!" A stray dog with its tail between its legs and jutting ribs sniffs the floor that is littered with sunflower seed carcasses and broken bottles. Musty pamphlets glued to the wall have turned into a slimy, translucent mess, collecting moisture from the air like sponges.

Why am I here again, he wonders, swallowing heavily. Because there is no choice. Europe had not offered him the riches of capitalism, nor a job or a home. For years, he wandered by himself, searching for work. He was met with slamming doors, although not because he lacked Party membership or because his father was executed as a counterrevolutionary, but more because his French was heavy with a Russian accent.

But today, Leo is neither French nor Russian. He is the Greek Orpheus who has traveled to purgatory to get back his Eurydice.

He walks past the buildings with a map he has created in his head. The complexes are squat and precisely how he remembered them. Time has stood still here, Leo thinks with horror. Shaking his head, he passes the old Anichkovsky palace, snow crunching under his shoes, until reaching the edge of a bridge to cross the Nevsky River.

The stone statues that guard the bridge look exactly as Leo’s recollection told him they would, save for malformations from the acid rain. In the first statue, a naked man cowers beneath the might of a towering horse, his hands pleading. The second statue shows the man reaching for the reins; in the third, he is face-to-face with the mad beast. In the last one, he sits upon the horse, his face stern with power. Leo had always hated the sculptures for they reminded him of how easily he was conquered. But Kira loved them, for a different reason he would probably never understand.

Leo’s feet take him to his old house, its stark white paint long stained with dirt and smog. He smoothes the creases in his shirt, holds his breath while feeling the cool air warm in his lungs, and knocks lightly on the door.

“Who is there?” a harsh voice calls--a voice that is too deep to belong to Kira. Leo’s heart sinks and he is about to leave when the door opens.

“May I help you?”

Leo pauses and turns around. There is an old woman by the door. She is thin and her face is hard, weathered like a ship by years of labor. Her graying hair is pulled into a tight bun that falls by the nape of her neck. He stares at her eyes though, because they are not eyes at all, just piercing blue glass marbles rolling in empty eye sockets.

“Well? Do you speak? Are you a Party member, here to arrest?” she asks, her false eyes narrowing.

“No, no ma’am. I am looking for someone. Kira. Kira Argounova. Do you know if she lives here?” Leo asks, his stomach tightening.

“No. No Kira. No Argounova,” the old woman says back in thick Russian, beginning to close the door.

“She used to live here...with me. Please. I mean no harm. I just need to see this place again. If it is not too much to ask, would it be alright if I stepped in for a minute?” Leo whispers, taking a cautious step closer. The blind woman stops, thinks for a second, then sighs.

“You seem like a kind boy. Heaven knows that worse has happened to women who have let men in,” she says, reopening the door. Leo takes a step into the apartment, stifling a gasp. The entire house has fallen apart since he last saw it--shredded wallpaper, broken furniture legs, thick layers of dust, plaster, and a dysfunctional Primus lay at his feet. The woman shuffles in behind him.

“You are not from here, are you?” she asks.

“No...well, yes…It’s complicated. I spent twenty-five years here until I escaped to France,” Leo tells her, tentatively sliding his hand over the shattered banister. The woman walks closer to him and grabs his arm.

“Why the hell did you come back?”

It stops Leo cold in his tracks, the words echoing in his ears. Why the hell did I come back?

“For Kira,” he whispers, wounded.

The woman says nothing and he feels the need to fill the empty void of silence before it sucks him away too.

“European sources say things are getting better here in the Soviet Union. Less oppression. So I thought...I thought...maybe I could find her again,” he adds quickly. The old woman chuckles, her laughter sounding like a bullfrog.

“I may be blind but even an idiot can see that nothing here has changed. Nothing will,” she wheezes back bitterly.

Leo leaves right then, after a quick mutter of thanks. In the final breaths of twilight and with the woman’s words ringing in his ears, he runs two kilometers to the Field cemetery and moves toward a far patch of snow in the back. It is undisturbed and pure white, with the exception of a single fresh green leaf that lies still and silent. It is the grave of his dead lover's lover.

"Hello Andrei," Leo says to the loud silence.
"It has been a long time. Has Kira joined you?" he asks the wind, already knowing the answer.

"I wanted to let you know that even dead, you are a fool. She loved you. Did you know that? Loved you more than me."

"So here we are. A bullet in your head and what might as well be one in my heart."

He sits, watching the construction of the new bridge across the river, alone in the dying light. It is the bridge that Kira never built but had always wanted to, and the same bridge he had never been able to cross, not even now.

"What have you done to me, Kira?" he whispers slowly, wrapping his slender arms around his torso and feeling the first tears since childhood fall like summer raindrops onto his frozen cheeks.



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