He was Van, plain Van, in the evening, standing six feet two with a cigarette in his mouth. He was Ivanushka in a plaid shirt. He was Vanya at work. He was Ivan on the dotted line. But in my arms, he was always Vanka.
* * *
He was a neighbour. A handyman. A friend of the family. New to Canada. Old from Russia.
He made himself useful, busied himself with housework and chores and errands and fix-ups while we contacted everyone we knew about job leads. A job was found. A job was lost (the boss was a jerk; we thought so, too). Another job was found, and this one stuck. Construction, gutters, roofs, running up and down ladders and pounding your arches into flat-footedness, twelve-hour days, skipped breakfasts, collapse on the sofa. Collapse into bed. Repeat the next day. Groundhog Day: The Life. Workaholic, son of an alcoholic.
I felt a shiver of delight when I first met him. I was 16, still in high school. He was just some older guy standing in the kitchen talking with my mom (who liked him enough to half-jokingly call him her adopted son). No, not just some older guy: a tall drink of vodka.
But that is all. I was yet to meet and date my first boyfriend. School and judo lessons and friends kept me too busy to pay any attention to him. But how could I not? He meshed his life with the life of my family, always doing favours for us, always chatting with my folks over cigarettes and beer. In short order, a landed immigrant became a family friend, then a family confidant.
I was suspicious from the start. Yeah, he’s good-looking. He’s got a way with words. He works like a horse. He’s Russian – our people, collectivist mentality, all that jazz. But my family fell in love with him too quickly, gave our time and affection too freely to someone who was, essentially, a stranger. How could I trust him? And how could I dare talk to him, shy as I was, with my halting, nearly forgotten Russian?
But somehow, we talked. Brief exchanges spoken in passing, casual for him, charged for me. There was nothing there, really. Just a kid, a skinny girl who didn’t know anything about hairstyles or makeup or nice clothing, or boys, and wouldn’t know for another year at least. Just a man, an awfully tall man, who was making a life for himself in a new country. I had nothing to say to him… but slowly we spoke. Like an uncle speaking with his niece.
He cooked for us. He did the plumbing. He souped up my bike. He helped me build a trebuchet for physics class. He even showed me how to do a proper manicure. How did he know all this stuff?
I do remember the starry night he seduced me. It was summer, and we were out for a stroll through the neighbourhood. He was 31. I was 18. His arm around my shoulder; his other hand holding a lit cigarette. We walked and talked; my heart pounded a bongo beat. It was past midnight and there was no one around. Where were we going?
There was an embrace. There was the pivotal kiss.
There were words of understanding and affection: “I want to know your hopes and dreams, your plans for the future.”
There were words of sorrow: “Old people like me have one purpose… we’re here to be squeezed for all we’re worth, used up, and thrown away.”
There were words of consolation: “I can’t imagine ever using you and throwing you away; I’d never do that.”
There were words of wry concern: “There’s going to be a scandal at home.”
But there couldn’t be a scandal. My family couldn’t know.
What followed that walk was a long period of relating, so to speak, on the sly. There were no restaurant dinners. No leisurely walks through the park. There were no words of a future together. And there certainly was no possible context that would include him + me + polite society.
We each developed nervous tics in the jaw, neck, eyelids. I threw tantrums; he refused to say he loved me. And we both had our own, private crises of conscience, moments of crushing guilt and anxiety.
But how could we resist the thrilling fear? He was afraid for his skin should anyone (my parents; his friends) find out. And I was afraid of losing him – losing the one person who calmed me, consoled me, and to whom I once uttered gravely, “I sacrifice myself to you.” But uniting us was this intense eros, this intellectual parity (almost), this fascination – wow, he knows so much and is so much mellower than me. Wow, she’s so young and sweet and precocious. And boy, this sneaking around is so exciting. Life is a movie.
He was not my first love. But he was my first passion. And he was the first man I gave my very heart and soul to, the first man to have my emotions entirely at his mercy.
I suffered. I shed tears. Love, like a white-hot barb, stung me and suffused my heart’s pith. I became more sensitive to the ether. I wrote bad poetry and even worse prose. I talked my best friend’s ear off about how much I adored him and what grief this idolatry cost me. But I couldn’t leave him. And he didn’t want to leave me.
* * *
I didn’t know it wouldn’t last. I thought we would carry on indefinitely. I entertained thoughts of marriage, of moving out and starting a life of our own, of opening up to everyone about our relationship, and living happily together forever. Fantasies, all.
Early in our romantic involvement, he took me aside for a talk. He asked me, “What is the future of our relationship? Where can it lead?” I said I didn’t know, but I was happy just being with him. He wondered if this involvement would harm me somehow.
I said, “The only way you could harm me is by either killing me or getting me pregnant.” Neither was an option. And neither happened.
We couldn’t have predicted what did happen, but, in retrospect, the signs were all there: the nervous tics. The close calls. The sleepless nights. And, of course, my own character, which tended towards worry and fretting and, after all is said and done, honesty. One fine day, I just broke down. After about a year of being with him, the pain and guilt of our affair finally got to me. I collapsed in the middle of an empty street, called my mum, and told her everything.
I didn’t know, going into the relationship, that I would end up a nervous wreck, confessing my indiscretion to my mother in pathetic, blubbering tones. I didn’t know secret relationships could do that to you. And I certainly didn’t know that I was not as mature or as sophisticated as I thought I was. At 18 going on 19, I really couldn’t deal. I can say that now, with the benefit of many years’ hindsight. I wouldn’t have admitted it back then.
When word got out to my family that this was going on, he did the sensible thing: he left. No goodbye. No apology. Just an absence.
I grieved this loss. I mean, I loved him, in spite of everything. I knew this was a bad romance, long before Lady Gaga sang about it. But I couldn’t help remembering the sweet moments, the tender words he whispered to me, the secrets he told me… and the ones I told him. It couldn’t have all been a sham. There was something raw – and real – there. But it was a mismatch. A crisscrossed love. It was a defining period in my life, but I’m sure glad it’s over.
Maya Sokolovski is a communications specialist based in Toronto, Canada. Her prose and poetry have appeared in The First Line, RIDE 3, the Journal of the Society of Classical Poets, Agnes and True, and the Eastern Iowa Review. Her interests include reading, writing, weightlifting, volleyball, and fine cuisine.