Postcards from St. Petersburg

By Maja Lukic
Image credit: Jasperdo

Image credit: Jasperdo

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

—Walt Whitman

The hour had passed from 8:30 to 9:00 and then to 9:30 as I sat at the wooden dining table. I read my novel while you slept upstairs. A silky summer breeze filled the air of the old house, and Ruby strolled by, her long tail brushing my bare ankle. Ruby’s innate distrust of me together with my allergies had somehow prevented a fulfilling human-to-cat relationship. She ducked under the grand old table in search of water.

The table, with its long thin scratches from knives carelessly used, was the most impressive piece of furniture in your home. You’d bought it at a local flea market the previous summer. You worked for hours refurbishing the wood, which was of good quality, with a new lacquer of paint – your sleeves rolled up and a cigarette in your mouth. I recall a composition in which a tall man stood off center in the late afternoon shadows and, in the background, thick residual streaks of orange and pink marbled across a lilac sky.

I wandered into the kitchen looking for coffee or tea, opening unfamiliar cupboards that revealed bare shelves. I sat down at the table again and continued to read until the creak of the old staircase signaled that you were awake. You appeared in the doorway in your green sweater. You pried the novel out of my hands and snapped it shut without marking the page, against my protests, and shuffled me back upstairs.

A few hours later, I pushed the front door open and stepped out on the cement steps. Before me, the tree-and-brownstone beauty of your street sparkled in the bright sunlight and swelling humidity, and behind me, an imposing townhouse towered toward a cerulean sky.

A gentle breeze moved through and lifted my dress as I climbed down. Purple flowers on yellow silk rose into the air and then settled around my thighs as I walked to the subway for the last time.

Every impression, every brief—but beautiful—moment of that morning is a photographic print in my memory, brought forward by my eventual state of derailment. Disassociated images and scents and sounds flicker and oscillate like fireflies on a black night. I track the path back for as long as I can, retracing my steps, but it lacks logic.

Toward the end, in those last days of diminishing August light and shadows deepening among the trees behind your house, there were words only spoken when I was asleep and songs only played when I was not there. And when it was all over, there were only letters written on a steel European metro but never sent. There were postcards bought in Shanghai and carried the world over but you never did risk the Chinese mails. Or was it me you never could risk?

And the Walt Whitman lines that signified the arrival of cool weather, which I read at the old bus station and which made me think of you – though I never could reach you to say so.

It’s been said that mutual exclusions, errors of reticence and self-doubt over extended periods of time, will end even the greatest. And I can tell you now that we were never the greatest.

You disappeared somewhere when the summer ended. It’s immature to say so – I know – but you disappeared first. You were there and then one day you were not.

Image credit: Ruby Lane

Image credit: Ruby Lane

By late December, I had moved to Manhattan. I rented a small studio on a cold, lonely block on Mott Street. A single living room window looked down on a desolate sidewalk where patches of old ice and gray salt carpeted the concrete. The building was located between a coffee shop and a building housing a pair of coke dealers. In the dealers’ building next door, bodies entered and exited throughout the night. The coffee shop took over in the morning when the dealers closed for a few hours. They alternated like that.

Mornings in the city were quiet, undisturbed. My boots scraped against the sidewalk and echoed in the tree-lined street as I walked. I stood under fire escapes attempting to see the sky through their grated landings. On rainy afternoons, I ducked under scaffolding or hid in doorways of closed shops on Mulberry Street. On sunnier mornings, sprays of pink lace across the pale blue sky were redolent of expensive lingerie. But for the most part, there were perpetual clouds above Chinatown and Little Italy even though the rest of the city gleamed under sunlight.

I was at the coffee shop every morning when it opened at 7. The guys behind the counter would nod to me but speak only to each other. The smell of burnt espresso and warm pastries rose to my nostrils. The heat inside the shop made my fatigued eyes water.

A persistent sense of vacancy followed me around. An earnest and clinging sadness. An astonishing awareness of a part missing, a body lost.

In the spring, I traveled to Paris. I looked for you there. I had other reasons to be there. Even so, I looked for you and came back to New York defeated.

It was never over. And if it’s not over, you flap your wings like a creature caught in a tar pit, unable to move forward, sinking ever deeper.

I met Sean at a café/wine bar near my apartment. I’d taken to eating meals at the bar with a book and a bottle of wine. The handsome Italian waiters chatted a bit with me every evening but left me alone as the café became busier with diners. I blended in with the other scene-setting objects in the room — the white-washed brick walls, the bookshelves lined with vintage novels, the small and wobbly café tables and uncomfortable wooden chairs. I was a fixture like any other.

Sean also had a book poking out of his brown leather messenger bag, but it was a paperback and he shoved it further into his bag as he read my title. His dark eyes examined me as if I were an animal at a shelter, an orphaned kitten or puppy he might consider adopting but was not yet sold on.

Sean had large, animated features and leather skin like that of a marathon runner. His entire face moved with every new expression. It moved so much in so many directions that I wondered how it all stayed together. The effect was not unattractive.

For a long time, there was silence – dead airwaves and severed phone cords. When the mailings began – enigmatic postcards, unsigned gift shop souvenirs, photographs of startling beauty, sporadic and unpredictable, tracking your movements from one end of the world to another – I was unprepared.

Sean and I had tapas for dinner one night. He let me choose because he did not care. A live mariachi band played on in a cramped dining room on a dim Alphabet City block, and Sean asked if I was enjoying myself. I told him I was.

Sean did not look like you and he did not smoke. Sean had no capacity for anger. He was not born under your Fire sign. Fire signs are selfish, too, are they not? I think they must be. The term Fire sign is a proxy for arrogance, is it not? I think it must be.

Sean’s parents are still married. When they celebrated their fortieth anniversary, I attended with Sean. They shared a piece of vanilla cake.

What country are you in? I thought during our meal. The slender tines of my fork stabbed rubbery grilled octopus, followed by a blood-like squirt of golden olive oil onto my plate.

Did you make it to Japan? I thought. You always said you would be concerned about me accompanying you to Thailand, with my allergies and the lack of English spoken there, but that I would love Japan. You said that you would not worry about me in Japan – well, do you still worry about me?

Shanghai, circa 1910 (Wikimedia)

Shanghai, circa 1910 (Wikimedia)

What country are you in? After dinner, I stayed awake for hours with my eyes closed. I’ve always been a light sleeper – drinking wine in the evenings made it worse. And then there were periods of terrible insomnia where I’d wake up at 3 or 4 every morning and wait for the sun to rise.

Sean was asleep next to me. He had to be up early for work. I envied his ability to drink and pass out.

Everyone describes insomnia in terms of staring at the ceiling with eyes wide open. But this has never been my experience. My eyes remain closed the entire time — an attempt to slide back into the early stages of sleep through some sort of neurological back door.

Eyes closed but images flash across my mind like a film projector throwing pictures against a white wall. Never whole scenes, but brief snippets—facial expressions, a smile, moments real and imagined.

I envisioned you in a sleep cabin (alone) on a night train speeding through a snow-covered wasteland, a camera bag by your side and a pack of cigarettes within easy reach.

That last summer, I borrowed your magazines and read them while you slept. The heat kept me awake. I watched you sleeping for as long as I could and loved you more in that calm, reposed state, tracing the fluttering lashes and the deep creases around your eyes – attributes of a long-time smoker. Too young to have such wrinkled skin but it gave your features a handsome, weathered appearance.

The hardwood floor cooled my bare skin as I sat there with only the magazines for cover. The sweaty curls on my neck lifted in the night breeze that brought with it the distant sounds of the traffic over the bridge and the lost opportunity of a city night spent indoors. Inside, only the sound of your even breathing through softly parted lips to keep me company.

I opened your camera bag and grazed its contents with my fingertips, identifying the lenses and the smooth, cool equipment you had used on me, the flash burning my retina as I smiled.

Last winter, you sent photographs from a night festival in Seoul. A ceiling of floating red balloons hovering in the night sky over bright festival lights. I stared at the images and envisioned a giant needle popping each balloon until a torrent of red rubber cascaded over the fairground, adults and children screaming and running for cover and you standing in the middle of a blood red storm.

I’ve struggled to recognize the postcards for what they are — not a resurgence or rebirth, but only the charred embers from which thin smoke rises in the faded predawn light, the fire long since dead. And the vast gray skies and the quiet, empty coffee shop reveal that one has, quite magnificently, lost.

I received a postcard today from the Hotel Moskva. It had your name on it.

We were on vacation but you knew how to find me. You always know how to find me. Sean saw it but I said nothing to him. He continued to pack, his suitcases bloated to capacity and beyond. I offered to help but he declined. I can’t blame him for leaving.

After the car drove Sean away, I sat in our empty rented apartment with my file of you – the pathology of a decaying relationship: a ceramic doll from a Russian museum, a scattering of postcards and overexposed images. I closed the file.

I ran to the beach and did handstands in the sand, inverting the heart above the head, forcing the sweat to trickle down my body in reverse. My topknot was loose when I came down gasping for air, with sore shoulders and burning cheeks. In the dimming light, the sunset burst over the vast lilac skies in streaks of pink, gold, and orange.

I rested on the sand watching the waves and hoped it was cold in Moscow.

Processed with VSCOcam with f2 presetMaja Lukic is an attorney and writer in New York City.

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