“And placed second.”
“Yes. I would have won but for that ox of a Georgian. Well, no matter. Sofija was there as a member of the Soviet Women’s Gymnastic Troupe. No doubt you are aware that the Baltic gymnasts were the finest in the world and that the Letts are superior to those in the other Baltic States.”
I had not been aware of this.
“Sofija’s team was victorious, of course. That such skill should be perverted to enhance the glory and prestige of the Soviet Union! Such grace, such liquid motion.” He closed his eyes and sighed at the memory. “We met, Sofija and I. We met and we fell in love.”
He stopped to light his fourth cigarette of the day. I had a feeling that this might be a night when he exceeded his tobacco ration. He smoked this cigarette all the way down, until he could not hold it without burning his fingers. Then he put it out and field-stripped it and then he had another long belt from the cognac bottle.
“You fell in love,” I prompted.
“We fell in love. Sofija and I, we fell in love. Evan, my brother, it was not the sort of love to spend itself in a night or a week or a month. We truly loved each other. We wanted to have each other forever. We wanted to have children together, to grow old together, to become grandparents together, to remain together for all our lives.” And his ears filled with his own words, and once again he began to weep.
“Did you ask her to defect?”
“Ask her? I begged her, I sank to my knees and pleaded with her. And it would have been so easy then, Evan. An easy ride to the American Embassy in Tokyo, a simple request for political asylum, and in no time at all the two of us would have been together in Providence. We would have been married, we would have had children, we would have grown old together, we would have had grandchildren together, we would have-”
“But she refused?”
“This,” he said, “is the tragedy.”
“She did refuse at first. She is only a girl, Evan. She was twenty years old when we met. By the time of her birth Latvia had already been a part of the Soviet Union for three years, and the Russians were our allies in the struggle against German fascism. What did she know of a free and independent Latvia? She was raised in a little town some miles from Riga. She went to Russian schools and learned what Russian teachers taught her. She spoke Russian as well as she spoke Lettish, can you imagine? What could she understand of defecting? She wanted to be a patriot and did not understand what true Lett patriotism means. How could she comprehend the Soviet rape of the Baltic States? How could she know of this?
“So she refused. But love, Evan, love works powerfully upon Letts. When we fall in love, it is not a matter to be shrugged off. The games ended. We separated. I returned to the States, Sofija returned to Riga. And then, when it was too late, when it was no longer a simple matter of a taxi ride to the United States Embassy, then my Sofija attempted to defect. Her troupe was in Budapest for a gymnastic exhibition, and she tried to escape.”
He shrugged. “Of course it was absurd. She was captured immediately and returned to Russia. She was immediately expelled from the all-Soviet team to the team of the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic, the L.S.S.R. Now, instead of touring the world, she plays matches with the teams of the other Soviet states. She does not leave Russia. She can never leave Russia. It is prohibited. She remains in Riga, and I remain in the States, and we go on loving each other and yet we can never be together.” He took a long pull of cognac. “And that is my tragedy, Evan,” he said. “That is my unhappy little love story, that is my tragedy.”
We drank, we cried, we drank, we sobbed, we drank. We discussed the utter impossibility of his situation, the unlikelihood of his ever finding another woman to replace Sofija, the slim chance that his love for her would ever fade away.
And at last he had an idea. “Evan, my brother,” he said, “you are able to travel, are you not? You are skilled at that sort of thing?”
“How do you mean?”
“Oh, that you can slip in and out of this Iron Curtain. You have been to Macedonia, have you not?”
“To all of Yugoslavia,” I said proudly. “And to Hungary and Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria. Never to Rumania or Albania or Poland. Or East Germany or Russia, of course.”
“And never to Latvia?”
“But could you get to Latvia? They say that it is very difficult.”
Blame it, if you will, on the cognac. For what I said was, “For the determined man, my brother Karlis, there is no such thing as a frontier. I have had some experience at this sort of thing. What, after all, is a border? An imaginary line that fools have drawn across the face of a map. A strand of barbed wire. A customs checkpoint. An experienced man, a capable man, can slip through any border like water through a sieve.”
“Then, you could enter the Soviet Union.”
“You could get into Latvia.”
“I don’t see why not.”
He grew very excited. “You could take me with you,” he said hurriedly. “You could show me the way, you could help me, and you could sneak me into Latvia and to Riga and reunite me with Sofija, and we would never have to be separated again.”
“I… wait a minute.”
He looked at me.
“You would return to Latvia?”
“I cannot live without Sofija, Evan. Better to live in slavery with Sofija than in Rhode Island without her.”
“But your work with the Army-”
“I could be of even more assistance to the Army if I lived there. I could send bulletins back. I could do organizational work-”
“That’s not what I meant, Karlis. Don’t you understand? They know you there, they know of your work with the exile movement. You’d be arrested at once.”
“I could disguise myself.”
I looked at him dubiously.
“I could, Evan.”
“As what? A tree? A mountain?”
“Evan, I cannot live without her!”
And then, because my cognac bottle was very nearly empty, and because what had been in the bottle was now in me, and because one’s inability to sleep does not preclude the possibility that alcohol, in sufficient quantity, will addle the brain, I said something very stupid.
What I said was, “Karlis, you are like a brother to me. And Karlis, my brother, I can do much more for you than deliver you into slavery in Latvia. I can go to Latvia, Karlis, and I can find your Sofija and I can bring her back to you, and the two of you can then live in Providence for the rest of your lives, and you can get married, and you can have children together, and you can grow old together, and you can have grandchildren together, and-”
“You could do that, Evan?”
“You could bring my Sofija to me?”
“I could. And I will.”
If there is truth in wine, then there is also abject stupidity in brandy. From that point on, the night went as it had to go. Karlis assured me over and over again that I was the finest man on earth, a prince, a hero, a true and pure Lett. And eventually he got foggy enough to pass out, and I roused him just enough to lead him through the fields to his sleeping bag, where I helped him off with his uniform and tucked him off to sleep.
Then I walked around for a while in the cool air until something vaguely approaching sobriety returned. And at that point I realized just how absurd had been my promise to Karlis. I had never before attempted to get into Russia. I had never even contemplated the problem, nor had I considered the even greater problem of getting out once I had gotten in.
And now I had given my word that I would do just that. Not merely by myself, but that I would bring an unsuccessful defector out with me. This was so obviously impossible that it was really not worth thinking about.
Perhaps, I thought, the cognac would cancel out its own excesses. Perhaps when morning came, a weakened and hung-over Karlis Mielovicius would have blacked out the memory of the conversation and the ridiculous promise I had made him. Perhaps he would forget the whole thing.
We broke camp in the morning. I had a hangover, and Karlis had a hangover, and, as far as I could see, half the camp had a hangover. It seemed as though alcohol had flowed as freely at the folk dance as it had in our tent, although the mood there was jubilant, while ours had been maudlin.
But Karlis’s words came through the hangover to me. “Evan, you will not forget what you said last night. You will go to Latvia, eh?”
I could have said no. The hell I could. I had built him up and I had to find the right way to let him down gently. This wasn’t the time for it, or the place, or the mood.
“I’ll do it,” I said. “But it may take time-”
“I know, Evan.”
“I’ll have to do a great deal of planning. Some specific research. I’ll have to get in touch with my Eastern European contacts.”
“My love can wait, Evan.”
I looked at that beaten blond giant and hated myself. By now, I thought, his girl was probably married to some petty commissar and enjoying the good life in revisionist Russia. Or, Lett that she was, she might still be torching for Karlis as he torched for her, consumed by this grand passion, with no hope of ever seeing him again.
I would stall him. What else could I do? I would stall him, and maybe someday he would forget about it. Or else, with time to let his hopes down slowly, he would simply realize that one could put little faith in the boasts and promises of a drunken Evan Tanner.
I went back to New York hating myself, and the hangover was only partially to blame.
Back in New York, with my dark green Latvian uniform returned to storage for another year, and with the academic problems of a mixed bag of unscholarly scholars to occupy my time, Karlis and his love life assumed a bit less importance to me. I lived in a four-and-a-half-room apartment on the fifth floor of an elevatorless old building on 107th Street a few doors west of Broadway. The four rooms are lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves (the half room is a kitchenette, and there’s barely room to boil an egg in it), and the bookshelves are filled with books and pamphlets and magazines. There is a little-used bed in one room, and a dresser in another, and a desk in yet another, and there are chairs here and there.
I spend most of my time at the desk. My government pension barely covers the dues I pay to various organizations, let alone the cost of my magazine subscriptions, and I make up the difference by writing theses and term papers for graduate and undergraduate students who are (a) too lazy or (b) too stupid or (c) both of the above. I generally have more work available than I care to handle; my rates are reasonable and my work is good, with a B-minus guaranteed. For several years I also took examinations for unprepared students, but I’ve dropped this recently. The challenge it once held has gone out of it, and only the tedium remains. A good doctoral thesis, on the other hand, takes quite a bit of meticulous research, all of which I hugely enjoy.
I had cleaned up a thesis on Lenin’s views of the Paris Commune before heading upstate for the Latvian encampment and I took on two more assignments shortly after my return: a study of English class structure as represented in Jane Austen’s novels and a shorter paper on the causes of the First Balkan War. These were easy topics for me, so much so that almost all of my footnotes were legitimate. I usually invent a large portion of them, but in this case it was hardly necessary. I wrote the papers and took my money.