Russian Winter

Daphne Kalotay


The winter I was twenty-five I met once a week with a professor of Russian named Lawrence Tillbear. This was in Boston, where I was working toward a Ph.D. in European Literature, studying for a qualifying exam in Russian fiction. At Tillbear’s suggestion, my tutorials began at 7:45 in the morning, when the air still held last night’s frost and the secretaries hadn’t yet arrived to unlock the main office. Despite the weather and the hour, I wore sheer stockings, miniskirts, and French perfume; I’d fallen in love with a biology post-doc and always met him for breakfast afterwards, at the coffee shop across the street. In Professor Tillbear’s office, I sat on a hard wooden chair, knees pursed, not yet used to the brevity of my skirts. Through the one small window the sky was always a slowly dissipating white, as if the air itself were struggling to wrench open its eyes for the start of a new, frigid day.

I spoke no Russian and read everything in English translation, which Tillbear graciously found acceptable. He would sit in a swivel chair smoking a pipe, his enormous stomach held in order by a suit that included a vest, pocket-kerchief, and bow tie. In his book-lined office it seemed the two of us had dressed up for the rows of hardcover volumes themselves and that the only suitable way to discuss such things was through a cloud of pipe smoke and Shalimar. Like my skirts, the perfume was a new affectation, and I wore my scent too heavily; in a seminar once, another student sniffed the air with worry and asked, “Do you smell gasoline?” But during my meetings with Tillbear the wooden hallways of the Department of Modern Foreign Languages were dark and quiet, with no one else to note our mutual excesses.

When Tillbear wanted to speak, he leaned back so that his swivel

chair threatened to touch the floor. In a surprisingly nasal voice, he

would test me:

“What does Gurov do after he and Anna have made love for the

first time?”

“He eats a watermelon.”

“And how does he eat it?”

“Without haste.”

He would nod with approval, then move on to another story. “And Akaky Akakievich?”

“He doesn’t make love!”

“Of course not. But he eats dinner.”

I considered poor Akaky; he was always so anxious to get back to copying. “A boiled potato, maybe?”

“Soup and a piece of beef with onion!” Pleased with his own knowledge, Tillbear would ease his weight and spring forward in the swivel chair.

I found those early hours nothing but pleasant, filled with images of country estates and samovars, distressed men and women hunched  in horse-drawn sleighs, wrapped in long coats and fur hats. At nine a.m. I would zip Gurov or Akaky or some sad country girl back into my backpack, wish Tillbear a good day, and descend into the brightening morning. The air whipped through my sheer stockings so that by the time I crossed the street to the coffee shop my legs were numb. But I would have done anything to retain the interest of my biologist. Even now I suspect I’m right that he found my mini skirts more fascinating than my thoughts on Chekhov or Gogol. When he discovered one night in mid-winter the secret of my stockings (that they ended at my thighs) he said, “This is so exciting” with more glee than I ever heard him express about any other topic. And so I continued to shiver in skirts that I had to tug at when stepping onto buses or up stairways.

At the coffee shop the two of us drank coffee from tall glasses, his with chocolate and whipped cream. Then I would head to the library to read for my various exams, and he would hole up in the biology lab, where he attended to fruit flies at all hours.

I sat across from him, thighs flat against the wooden seat.

“A woman by the name of Liza Andreiev lives not far from here. She’s a former principal dancer with the Bolshoi ballet, a beautiful woman. They called her “the Butterfly.” Her husband was a writer, something of a dissident. He was taken to Siberia and never heard from again–on the very eve of their escape to the U.S.” Tillbear leaned further back in his chair, and his vest-buttons pulled against their button holes. “He had a withered arm,” he added, sounding nostalgic. “Liza has lived here ever since. She’s faltering these days.”

Tillbear himself looked in poor health, with the pasty gray skin and congested breath of a long-term, sedentary smoker. Though he wasn’t frail, I worried he might keel over one morning in my presence, before the secretaries had arrived–or, worse, before I’d had a chance to pass the exam.

“That was her nurse on the phone just now,” he continued. “For years she’s suffered from rhumatoidal arthritis. A nurse comes every evening to prepare supper and spend the night, and help her get up in the morning, but she’s alone all day. So she’s finally been convinced to move into a rest home.” Tillbear took a long breath. “She won’t let anyone help pack her things. Which is where you enter the picture, should you care to: I asked if she would let a student help, in exchange for some money—to make it sound like she’s the one doing the helping. She was able to agree to that. So, if you’d like to make a little extra money, she could hire you to sort through her things, put them in boxes, you know.”

I knew I could use the extra cash. “Does she speak English?”

“Beautifully. A truly fascinating woman.” He squinted at the gray sky of his window. “I’m sure she’ll have much of interest for your ears.”

The Andreiev residence was on Commonwealth Avenue, in a large, once-majestic building whose owner, like so many of the area’s landlords, had split formerly grand apartments into rentals, converting old servants’ quarters into “studios.” The flattened carpet of the main hallway stunk of long winters and dirty boots.

Liza Andreiev’s home was large and airy, with high ceilings and tall windows that did nothing for the heating. A series of patterned rugs were cast about the living room floor like litter rather than decor. One of them, a kilim of deep reds and blues, was slightly in the way of the front door, but instead of rearranging it, someone had hacked away with scissors until the bothersome part no longer existed; it looked as if some animal had taken a chomp out of the corner.

Standing there shivering, I received the dark-eyed glare of a woman in her seventies, with gray hair in a tight bun and her mouth, painted red, in a narrow grimace. The arthritis had calcified her bones so that she could no longer bend at the waist. Her electric wheelchair was not a chair so much as a tilted board into which she was strapped, leaning back. I had expected her to have a ballerina’s long neck and straight back, but age had done to Liza Andreiev what it does to everyone else: hunched her shoulders, bulbed her knuckles, crooked a thumb and two fingers.

“Did you take the elevator?” was the first thing she said to me. Her mouth moved with ease, but her neck was intractable. When I told her yes, she said, “I don’t trust it.”

“It does look a little rickety.” And not big enough to move large pieces of furniture, I was thinking. I wondered if she ever went down to the ground floor, if the nurse ever pushed her wheel-board into the Boston daylight. “My name’s Rhea,” I told her, not knowing what else to say.

She waited a minute, as if deciding, and said, “Call me Liza.”

She wore a long wool skirt and furry slippers. A small gray cat with horribly matted fur stood next to her. I wondered if the nurse fed it, too, on her nightly visits.

“We begin with the closets,” was what Liza said next. She had me pick through things that had not been touched for years: cards and letters bundled in ancient elastic bands that cracked apart the minute I touched them, and newspaper articles, in English and in Russian, with yellowing photographs of Liza dancing. Someone more knowledgeable might have been stalled by curiosity. But I flipped through the papers quickly in front of Liza, who said yes or no–keep or toss–or told me to add them to the pile intended for the university library, to which she had bequeathed her documents and letters. I knew what the papers would look like there pinned under the glass of the lobby’s exhibit tables. Each day I walked past such displays without pausing. Most students seemed not to even notice them.

I came to a flurry of articles clipped from American newspapers and read one dated April 1961. “World-renowned dancer Liza Andreiev, whose husband, writer Nicolas Andreiev, was taken by Soviet authorities hours before her escape to the United States, has officially claimed political asylum. Mrs. Andreiev, former principal dancer with the Bolshoi Ballet, is known as “The Butterfly” for her artful mastery of some of ballet’s most difficult roles….”

“That’s garbage,” said Liza.

Something made me hesitate. I expected her to be nostalgic, perhaps, watching the corners crumble from stale newsprint on which she still danced, frozen in motion.

“People thought I left Russia to escape Communism,” she said as I let the articles slip into the trashbag. “I left to escape my mother in law. She was a horrible woman. She liked birds. Little yellow and green birds that did nothing but screech. She had three of them in a little bamboo cage. They chewed through the bamboo and shat on everything.”

The cat with the matted hair had tipped the trash bag and was pawing through it with great interest.

“The three of us stuck in that apartment with birdshit everywhere. I hated coming home at the end of a tour. She hated the thought that I might take him away from her. She acted as if I already had, even though we were still there, stuck with her and her birds. Nicolas hated it too.” Liza closed her eyes as if to recall. “She was nothing but jealous. And jealousy, of course, is a deadly thing.”

By this time I was spending some nights at my young biologist’s apartment. But I made sure to sleep alone on the nights before my meetings with Tillbear, so as to be bright-eyed and alert for our early meetings. Sometimes I had to cram one last story in on my subway ride to the university. It was on the Green Line early one morning that I first read Turgenev’s “Living Relic” and thought immediately of Liza. Turgenev’s character was worse off, though, her body completely solidified, like a bronze statue, lying on a dirt floor in a cottage in the woods. And yet she was cheerier than Liza.

Tillbear, too, must have been reminded. A few minutes into our discussion he paused and, holding his pipe delicately in front of him, said, “I don’t actually know Liza Andreiev. Not in any personal way. It’s only through circumstance that I’ve been somewhat connected with her all of these years.”

I assumed that by “circumstance” he meant the local Russian community and his position in the Russian department. I waited for him to continue, but he seemed embarrassed to have said even that much. Tillbear always asked after Liza in a curious but respectful way, as though he wanted to peek through a keyhole but didn’t dare. “She must have so many interesting anecdotes,” he would say, and wait for me to furnish more information. When I answered, “I don’t know about anecdotes, but she sure has a lot of stuff in her apartment,” he would just nod.

“Here in Boston she became known for her beautiful jewelry,” he said that day, “though I hear she wears none of it now.” He looked to me for confirmation and, when I nodded, continued. “Some of it was featured in magazines, I remember. My dear wife, may she rest in peace, kept all of the photographs.” He gave a little smile. “We all have our little obsessions.”

I showed up at Liza’s one afternoon straight from campus, still in my short skirt with the sheer stockings. From the flat wheelboard, Liza looked me up and down and said, “There is a man in your life.”

I nodded, hoping she would ask for details; talking about my biologist made me hopeful as to our future.

“ My legs were longer and stronger,” was all she said, and I’m sure it was true. But mine worked, and I had someone to entangle them with in the night. Unfortunately, he had to be at the lab whenever a new batch of fruit flies was born, and so our evenings were often punctuated by visits to the university. Sometimes he would come to my apartment very late, two or three a.m. It was a humbling thing, to feel in competition with insects.

“I need you to help me,” Liza announced grandly that afternoon, as if my previous visits had been nothing more than social calls. “You must help me tell a lie.”

An authority would soon be arriving, she explained, to inspect the apartment, and she was worried about the fireplace, a gas one which was not up to code. “You must tell them I knew nothing. The workmen put it in there, and I knew nothing of what was legal or not.”

Why would they believe me more than her, I wanted to ask. But I could see in her panicked eyes that what she needed was simply reassurance. I told her I would help, and waited for a few minutes, expecting to meet an angry landlord or building superintendent.

But it was only a realtor, a tall woman in a long camel-hair coat, showing the apartment to a young, bored-looking couple who lingered by the doorway in a manner suggesting they had already made their minds up against it. Looking nervous, Liza turned her wheel-board away from them, while they raised their eyebrows at the mutilated kilim. The realtor, grinning madly, made futile exclamations over the wooden floors, the decorative molding, the seven-foot windows, the light the place must have in summer. She didn’t mention the fireplace.

When the realtor and the young couple had left, Liza whispered, with great relief, “We are safe.”

One night after dinner at a cheap Vietnamese restaurant that left our cheeks red from MSG, my young biologist told me he had to end our date early to check on a batch of newborn flies. For the first time I wondered about the student intern, an undergraduate who helped him at the lab. I knew she was a young woman, but I did not allow myself to imagine what possible charms she might possess, refusing to fall into a trap as commonplace as jealousy.

Yet I went home despondent. On my telephone’s answering machine was a message from Liza, her voice crackling through the recording. “The night nurse has been called away on a family emergency. If you could aid me tonight, that would be appreciated.”

I packed a toothbrush and flannel pajamas and headed straight over without changing my clothes. When Liza saw me, her eyes narrowed angrily.

“And where is your amour?”

“He’s at the lab. The fruit flies are being born every minute.”

She raised her eyebrows dubiously. “Fruit flies,” she said. “That’s original.”

I ignored her, though this smarted somewhat. I didn’t want to blame her. How could she be anything but resentful, a ballerina once called “the Butterfly” now bound to a board?

In the night, the apartment looked more formal, less ill-kept, but felt even colder. I heated Liza’s dinner–a frozen meal in a little plastic tray–and fed to the scruffy cat what Liza didn’t finish.

Liza said, “My husband went to another woman, too.”

“What do you mean?” To insinuate, I wanted to add.

“Fair hair. Young breasts. Short skirts. Round face.” She said all these things with distaste.

Though filled with anxious rage, I said only, “I’m sorry.”

“He had a great appetite for sex. Appetites must be filled, I suppose. But with such a thing!”

I had never seen someone so angry so still.

“She was nothing!” said Liza. “A young nothing of a girl.” My face burned, but I didn’t reply, just waited for her to tell me more. Which she didn’t. For the rest of the evening we sat with the television in front of us tuned to news shows. Back and forth we made brief, disparaging comments at the follies of the greater world. When Liza said, “It’s time for me to visit the restroom,” I acted as though I knew what to do. In the bathroom I unstrapped her from her board, and helped her lean back against the special plastic seat that was part of the toilet. In a voice that forbade chit-chat, Liza instructed me in the various duties of hygiene, and I learned the responsibilities of the night nurse. Afterwards I prepared Liza for bed, lifted her onto her mattress, lay her head down in the small dent of her pillow, and pulled the heavy wool cover up to her withered chin. Then I changed into the flannel pajamas I loved but never allowed myself to wear in the presence of my biologist, and slipped into the twin bed next to Liza’s. Throughout the apartment, radiators clattered, a chorus of noisy gremlins.

I slept poorly and therefore heard Liza when, waking from a dream, she called out repeatedly in her sleep. Her words sounded frightened, disturbed, but in Russian I couldn’t understand them.

The next morning, I saw that despite her fretting she had not moved at all in the night. Of course, I remembered; she can’t move. She lay in exactly the position I had placed her in the night before, the sheets not the least bit wrinkled. When I lifted her, the pillow held the same narrow dent it had when I’d leaned her head into it.

“I have a doctor’s appointment at nine thirty,” she announced, as if it were news she had acquired during the night. “The van will fetch me at nine. Will you come with me?”

“You should have told me yesterday,” I said. But I agreed to accompany her, and exchanged my warm pajamas for the stockings, blouse and skirt that now felt inadequate. I prepared Liza swiftly, drawing the line of red lipstick onto her narrow, dry lips, and pulling her wizened hair back into the tight bun she still preferred. In the elevator, her eyes darted awkwardly, as if trying to ignore someone and doing a very bad job of it. But who was there to ignore besides me? There were only our own doubles, in the mirror that walled the elevator. It was as though Liza sought to escape her own reflection, trapped not in her wheelchair but in the glass itself.

When we returned from the doctor’s, the realtor was back. She had let herself into the apartment to show it to a skinny bald man, who was inspecting everything with close attention, turning on faucets, pulling out drawers, cracking windows to see how well they opened. A cardinal had perched in the tree outside the kitchen window, and the gray cat lunged at it unsuccessfully. The man fingered the molding and tapped the walls.

Even in her fossilized state, Liza was visibly upset. “What is he looking for?” she asked the realtor. “What does he expect to find?”

“Are these real ceramic tiles?” the man asked of the kitchen floor.

“Looks like it to me,” the realtor said before Liza could answer.

“Gorgeous, isn’t it?”

The man began opening cabinets, loudly lamenting the lack of storage space in his current abode. “Look how deep these shelves are,” said the realtor. “You’ll never run out of dish space. And the closets! These old apartments have so many closets compared to the new ones.” The man stepped out of the kitchen and frowned at the old radiator in the living room. He looked around the room, hands on his hips, and ignored the cat, which rubbed hungrily against his ankles. “Does the fireplace work?” he asked.

“I think so,” said the realtor. “It looks like a gas fireplace. Isn’t that great? No need to get logs or kindling or anything. Just flick the switch. This still works, right?” The realtor looked to Liza for confirmation.

“I know nothing,” Liza said. At my next meeting with Tillbear, I told him about Liza’s behavior

toward the realtor.

“Perhaps she does have something to hide,” Tillbear mused into his pipe stem. “I’ve always wondered if she might have had a part in her husband’s underground activities.” His eyes lit up with the possibility. And then: “I met her mother-in-law once.”

“You did? Was she as horrible as Liza says?”

“So you’ve heard about her.”

“Only in unflattering terms. When did you meet her?”

“When I was still a young man, in the early sixties. I spent a period of time doing post-doctoral research in Moscow.” He put the tip of the pipe stem to his mouth. “My poor wife refused to come along. It didn’t matter that we were both U.S. citizens; she was convinced that if we went behind the Iron Curtain we would never get out.” He shook his head.

“You can’t understand what it was like then.”

“Was Liza still living there?”

“No, she was already in Boston, but I had never met her. Back then I knew very little about her, though I had read most of her husband’s work. Wonderful stories, and a delightful novel. Nothing subversive in it that I could see.” He gave a perplexed little sigh. “The risks people took then—in the name of art and freedom. If we could all be so noble.”

He took a suck from his pipe. “His mother was desperate to be in touch with someone from Boston. Someone from the university there gave her my name.”

“What was she like?”

“She was in dreadful shape, had been ever since her son disappeared. Never got over the shock. That’s what I was told. By the time I went to visit her, she was barely strong enough to speak.” He gave a disappointed sigh. “I never figured out exactly what she wanted from me. A few weeks after I returned to the States, I heard she had passed away.”

“What do you think she wanted?”

“I really don’t know. To tell you the truth, I’d expected to have to deliver a message of some sort–information too precious to mail, you know. I had a romantic notion of myself as playing a brief role in the underground network. But when I saw her–it’s a pity, she really just seemed crazy. All I could gather was that she was very angry.” He shook his head. “Life in those conditions; it affects the mind.”

By mid-March Liza and I had finished clearing out the closets and moved on to the drawers. Liza owned numerous bureaus, some filled with boxes of silk scarves, embroidered handkerchiefs, and numerous hat pins, others crammed with gloves and evening bags of a type the world no longer requires women to wear. I was slightly ashamed to find these objects of more interest than the articles and letters. Especially the jewelry, which, rather than storing in a safe, Liza had stowed in a haphazard way among less valuable possessions. I longed to try on all of these things but didn’t dare to in Liza’s presence.

The realtor continued to show the apartment to prospective buyers, but I could tell that she was becoming impatient; Liza and I were creating quite a mess. Each time the realtor returned, the sprawl had increased, boxes stacked against walls, over-stuffed trashbags strewn about. To clean with any real effect had become nearly impossible. Liza tried to ignore the realtor but always managed, despite her immobility, to look disturbed.

For Tillbear I wrote a paper on mysticism in the Russian short story and received an A. Despite his praise, though, I felt I was failing him somehow; each week he asked me about my hours with Liza as if expecting some sort of revelatory information. In fact, little of interest ever occurred. Then, one day, emptying yet another set of wooden drawers at Liza’s, I came to a case of white leather, with gold corners and a thick gold latch. From her reclining board, Liza told me to open it.

Inside the box was a suede pouch. I unknotted it and shook its contents onto the top of the bureau. In an awkward heap lay a necklace of gaudy amber.

“Hold it up,” Liza instructed.

I did so and viewed the necklace, a thick gold chain along which seven large drops of amber hung like heavy orange tears.

“I wore it, though it was not meant for me,” Liza said, and I thought I knew what she meant; the necklace was too big for her, too bulbous, good only for someone rounder and softer, someone with meat on her bones. The amber was magnificent, closer to yellow than brown. I looked carefully at each piece to see what might be hidden there and found, caught in each one, surprises of bubbles and seeds. But when I came to the middle section, an amber drop larger than all the others, I paused.

Trapped inside was a tiny, ancient fly. I stared at the insect while Liza made derogatory comments about South American amber. The fly was nearly symmetrical, its wings minuscule and fine.

“You see how they are formed by nature,” Liza explained. “These things become petrified.”

Something made me turn to look at Liza. Her eyes were on the necklace, so that I too focused again on the amber bulb. I tried to make sense of Liza’s world, where any elevator might be bugged, any mirror two-way glass, any realtor or furniture-mover a potential informant. I saw that now. Stiff on her board, Liza said, “One of his arms was lame, you know.”

It took me a moment to realize that she was referring to her husband.

“Some women are drawn to that sort of thing. They find fragility attractive in a man.” Liza did not seem to be referring to herself, and I wondered what had prompted this remark. I stared hard at the necklace.

The fly held its pose. Liza said, “I used to wear this all the time. It did nothing but strangle.”

Winter thawed into a slushy spring, daffodils bowing their heads under wet snow. Tillbear and I had moved along to works of the Soviet period. Each week I read stories of paranoia and rebellion, which Tillbear and I discussed in his dark, smoky, sweet-scented room.

I was certain that something was happening between my biologist and his young lab assistant, but I didn’t dare voice my suspicions. To state them meant they might be confirmed. Liza had said that jealousy was a deadly thing, and I took her word for it, knew that it could end my relationship altogether. But my doubts overpowered me. I found it hard to concentrate, hard to sleep at night. Liza’s reference to her husband’s infidelity now seemed directed purely at my own situation. On the nights that I lay in bed alone, I thought of her amber necklace. It had been purchased for someone else entirely–that was what she had meant.

It was around this same time that a husband and wife in their early forties bought Liza’s apartment. They visited the place at least four times before making an offer, and each time the realtor looked that much more desperate. Liza sat glaring from the corner of the living room, as if she were not the very one who would most benefit from a sale.

An appraiser came for the home inspection. He was a middle-aged man with a moustache and a baseball cap, and after about thirty minutes in the various rooms he appeared satisfied, said that despite apparent neglect the place was in generally good shape. He noted that the wood of one of the windowsills was rotting, and that some caulk was needed in the bath. He pointed out that the model of gas fireplace that had been installed did not fit the original fireplace exactly, but that it was not a problem; he knew the company that had installed it, he said, and they often did this, to cut corners. It was not a safety hazard. When Liza said, “I didn’t know,” he laughed and winked at her.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I won’t tell on you.”

Liza’s eyes flashed with terror and relief. And I too felt a flash–of comprehension. It was more a feeling than a thought. But now I can give it words: She had told.

The hacked-at kilim and the bags stuffed with trash, the starved cat and Liza’s grim face all told me that it was possible. Probably any of us could do it–settle into the cruelty the way an old woman slides into bitterness. Of course at that time I didn’t believe I would ever become an old woman. But I would have been happy to punish my biologist in some way.

Was that why I hadn’t left him yet, I asked myself, watching Liza’s eyes: To admit the truth meant insufferable anger. And I had no way to quell it. I had nothing to use, nothing that might make him jealous or hurt him in any way. Nothing at all to hold over him.

I watched as the man flipped shut the latch on his little kit, told us goodbye, and let himself out the door. Liza gave a small exhalation, as if exhausted.

A day or two later I broke things off with my biologist. For the following weeks I felt a constant heaviness about me, especially when I began noticing him everywhere with his lab assistant. I gave up my short skirts. Despite the brighter mornings, I had trouble springing out of bed as I had before. I wanted to remain in my cocoon of sheets as late as possible. It was as if I were making up for all the sleep I had missed on those late romantic nights.

And yet I slept poorly, tormented by thoughts of my biologist’s new conquest. Tossing restlessly in bed, I thought of all the things we do, every day, to appease our appetites.

I was relieved when, within a week of the house inspection, the nurses came to take Liza to the rest home. We said goodbye cordially, Liza treating me as if I were a hired hand and not someone who had once changed her clothes, brushed her hair, and tucked her into her bed. The nurse lifted the cat into a travel basket and said she was glad to adopt it. That same week, Tillbear came down with pneumonia, and we had to miss the next three of our weekly meetings.

With Tillbear, Liza, and my biologist all suddenly removed from my life, I filled the empty spaces of my days with gloomy, assiduous studying. I passed the remainder of my preliminary exams, switched my winter coat for a spring one, and read the job notices in hope of summer employment. And I decided to share with Tillbear my new understanding about Liza. Perhaps, in doing so, I would finally satisfy someone.

When Tillbear and I met for our final session, he was still congested and pale, and I felt we made a good pair, injured but recovering. From the little window behind him, the sun carved a tunnel of dusty light.

“Did our Russian friend get off okay?” Tillbear asked, and I told him yes.

“Such a talented woman,” he said. “It’s a shame how she’s ended up. And her husband. I hate to imagine what he went through.”

The look in his eyes was one we have all had, when relating some tragic event that has happened to someone else. “All they had, really, was their art and their ideals.”

But because of the past few weeks I knew better. I knew how bad it felt to be powerless. I could see how some people, with nothing to use, might make something up.

Hesitating, aware of how he might take it, I told Tillbear, “I’m not sure her husband was a dissident at all. I mean, I’m not sure he was even involved–”

Tillbear set into a great fit of wheezing. At first I thought it a reaction to my comment, but the way he shook his head and said, “Sorry, excuse me,” I understood it to be a result of his illness. He noisily sucked at air in a practiced manner. The struggle felt oddly familiar to me. I didn’t want to be part of it.

It took a full minute for his wheezing to subside. When his breathing became regular, and he had apologized for his coughing, I redirected us toward my studies. And when the semester ended, I told Tillbear goodbye in a final way, knowing I wouldn’t keep in contact with him.

He recently retired, I hear. Liza passed away a number of years ago. Who knows where my biologist is. As with all the world’s absences, I continue to feel their weight on the earth.