Five years ago, I was in a classroom lit with long fluorescent rods, staring at a tall blond boy sitting across the empty square formed by the edges of four rectangular desks. It was an orientation session for our college’s summer study abroad program in Russia, and when he asked questions—and he posed many questions—he did so with an air of authority and condescension that gave me the impression he already knew the answers. He chose each word as carefully as a chef chooses a fish at the market, and gestured with long, capable-looking fingers. I tried to catch his swimming-pool-blue eyes; they eluded me.
The next time I saw him was a week or two later at an end-of-the-school-year party in a crowded room limned with Christmas lights. I was holding, but not really drinking, a sticky red Solo cup of vodka-and-something. He was involved in an animated conversation with a boy I didn’t know. Through a process of casual but wide-ranging questioning—of friends on my floor, acquaintances in his dorm, fellow students of the Russian language—after that first sighting at orientation, I realized I’d been hearing his name all year: He was a self-styled intellectual and writer who had dated a formidably intelligent girl in one of my seminars and was known for being somewhat idiosyncratic. He had a girlfriend of four months, but they would be on a break for the summer.
I pretended to participate in a group conversation while keeping him in my peripheral vision. When his conversation ended, I excused myself and approached.
HI. I said, over the music.
I’M EMMA. WE’LL BE IN RUSSIA TOGETHER THIS SUMMER.
PETER.1 NICE TO MEET YOU.
We spoke briefly about nothing until someone called him away for a photo. I watched as the flash lit up his features, which he had arranged into a comical grimace. He seemed entirely free from the insecurity and self-doubt of youth.
Seventeen of us went to Russia that summer on the study-abroad program. Like me, he was a rising sophomore, but since I had taken intensive Russian, cramming two years of grammar and vocab into one, I had been assigned to the advanced class, and he to intermediate.
I thought of him idly from time to time: his penetrating blue eyes, rumored brilliance, self-assured bearing.
For two months, five days a week, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., we would sit in neighboring classrooms, conjugating Russian verbs and discussing dead czars and the popularity of blue jeans during the Soviet era. The poplar trees in the school’s overgrown yard were diseased, and the sound of a saw slicing through the dead branches, before, finally, bisecting the hollow trunks, would reverberate in the dusty air, forcing us to close the windows so we could hear the teacher speak.
Lily, the only other rising sophomore in my intensive Russian class, and so a friend, knew Peter. Before we arrived, I presented her with a litany of questions: What is he like? He and his girlfriend used to lure squirrels in Harvard Yard with nuts tied to long pieces of string. What else? He used to climb through his window and onto the roof of Matthews Hall to read. And? He listens to jazz.
As I prepared for the trip, I thought of him idly from time to time: his penetrating blue eyes, rumored brilliance, self-assured bearing. I didn’t believe in love at first sight, but experience had taught me to trust the mysterious tugs of attraction I occasionally felt for someone I barely knew.
On the first day of class, I loitered uncertainly in the hallway, talking to the people who had been, up to now, just my Russian-class friends. At some point, Lily, Peter, and I decided to go for a walk.
“Where are we going?” I asked as we set out from the school and its graveyard of trees. I was used to having destinations. I was also wearing heels—sensible ones, with round toes and wide, stacked heels—but heels nonetheless.
Peter: “Do we need a destination? Let’s wander.”
Lily: “Let’s cross the bridge to Vasilevskii Island.”
At first it was lovely—the day breezy and sunny and blue. We walked and talked and talked and walked until we stumbled on a pocket-garden that held half-chiseled stone busts. A girl rode around its perimeter on a miniature horse. We sat on the pedestal of statue and watched her. It felt good to rest; I could feel the wetness of blisters forming.
Peter, so far, seemed inscrutable and strange to me: He made jokes I didn’t understand, held my gaze with such relentless concentration it made me uncomfortable, and would sometimes go silent for minutes at a time. Next to him, I felt like a high school freshman again—insecure, pliable, and easy-to-please. He seemed to understand something about the world that I lacked the tools to grasp.
Shortly after we set out from the park, we disagreed about which Metro stop was nearest. Peter prevailed, and it soon became clear he had been wrong, had led us out of our way, and my mood soured: I was tired and hungry and I wanted to be home. A drunk Russian lunged at us, barking, as we finally re-crossed the bridge we had crossed earlier. When we got home—late for dinner on our second night—I peeled off my tights to find blood crusted into the grooves of my toes.
In the first or second week, I went to buy cigarettes with Peter at lunch. Neither of us smoked much, but it seemed like the kind of thing a semi-tortured artistic type did in the summer in Russia. He bought Belyomor Kanals, cheap, filterless cigarettes the fishermen smoked. If you failed to compress the butt of the cigarette before lighting it, you would end up with filaments of tobacco stuck to your tongue. It was raining and we walked beneath our separate umbrellas.
He told me he water-colored after class most days.
“Are you a painter?” I asked.
“Oh, I’m not any good. I just do it for fun. What about you? Do you draw?”
“Sometimes I sketch,” I responded, timidly.
We became friends.
Summer in St. Petersburg is famous for its “white nights”: Since it is so close to the Arctic circle, the sun sets for only a few hours each night. With the sun burnishing the canals up until midnight and the poplar trees filling the air with the dandelion-like fluff of their seeds, all experience acquires a dreamlike quality.
I began shivering so violently that Peter offered me his black sweatshirt and rubbed my arms to warm me up.
One such dreamlike night, a Russian girl named Tanya invited Peter and me to join her for Alye Parusa, or Scarlet Sails, a celebration for the city’s newly minted university graduates, during which everyone gets drunk and lines up along the Neva for a glimpse of the Shtandart, a tall ship rigged with red sails. We bought 16-ounce cans of Baltika 7 beer and jostled our way to the steps of a townhouse, from which, at five foot two, I could still barely see. After the sun dipped for its hour or two below the horizon, I began shivering so violently that Peter offered me his black sweatshirt and rubbed my arms to warm me up.
We stayed out all night, watching as the city’s bridges, which rise at night to let large shipping boats pass in and out, ascended the sky, and warming our hands on Russia’s first Eternal Flame, with young Russians, many of whom—with the bridges up and the Metro closed—had, like us, purposefully missed their window to return home. Tanya took a photo of Peter and me as the sun rose: I’ve stood on my tiptoes to lean my head against his shoulder, and we press against each other, our faces red from the cold. The horizon glows yellow behind us.
Two weeks later, a few of us met up at Fidel, a grimy bar off the Nevskii Prospekt. After a few rounds of vodka-and-lemons, the group left for another bar, but Peter and I decided to stay. We danced in a small circle of Russians, and then by ourselves. When we went outside—sweaty, dizzy, drunk—to get some air, I leaned against the crumbling, graffitied portico of the arcade. He started to say something (“Emma…”); stopped; started again (“I don’t know what…”); stopped; leaned in as if to kiss me; didn’t; and pulled me into his chest for a hug instead. I rocked my head back, narrowed my eyes, and stared into his. Finally he kissed me, first softly and then very hard, with my back crushed into the stone, until my shoulders blades burned from the pressure and cold, and small purple bruises lined the sides of my neck.
After that, we started seeing each other a great deal. At lunch, we would get ice cream and sit in the playground near the school, reading or taking turns napping with our heads in each other’s laps. When classes ended, we would meet outside of the school and choose our adventure for the day. Sometimes we went to the Russian Museum or the Hermitage. Peter liked to move quickly through halls of paintings until he found one he thought worthy of his time. We would stand before it for 10 to 15 minutes, whispering clever observations and new discoveries into each other’s ears, hands tucked into one another’s back pockets. Other times, we would simply pick a direction and walk until our feet grew tired; then we would sit on a park bench, make out, and discuss aesthetics.
More and more frequently, we would take the Metro together to his apartment, kissing all the way up and down the long escalators to and from street level. After we had sex—once, twice, sometimes three times—he would play me music he liked (Charlie Parker, Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom), read me poems he had written during his senior year of high school, strum the guitar naked, or show me photographs of the house his father had built on a few acres of land perched a cliff overlooking the Pacific in a town three hours north of San Francisco. I was home so rarely the father of my host family asked Lily whether I had run away to get married.
One weekend at the end of July, we went as a group on a trip to Moscow. Peter and I had traded keys with others in order to end up in the same hotel room. That Saturday, he was in a strange and quiet mood. He asked me to stay in with him instead of going out. My brother was also in Moscow so I couldn’t stay, but I said I would be back by a certain time. When the appointed time passed he called me, and I didn’t answer; he texted, and I didn’t answer. I was enjoying myself and had not looked at my phone. When I got back to the room, he was asleep. On the desk I found a note, penned in dark and jagged print: “When I say I want you, I want you now.”
Two weeks later, I was curled on my left side in his bed, crying. It was our last night in Russia together. He told me his girlfriend was coming to visit him in California before school started again. She had always been lurking in the background; I knew they spoke sometimes, and that when he occasionally grew moody, she was the cause. I knew these things, but I did not really believe in them. We were, it seemed to me, inordinately happy together; why would he throw this away?
P: “I consider you my girlfriend, but I still have feelings for A—.” Her. “I haven’t told her about you yet.”
E: “So this is the end.”
P: “We’ll see what happens when we get back to school.”
He broke it off with A— on her visit and, within a week or two back at school, we were official. He was my boyfriend and we were so cute.
“Make a wish,” he’d say whenever an eyelash fell out. I could think of nothing but Don’t let this happiness end.
We fell into a routine like the one we had found in Russia. After I had finished class for the day, I would stand at his open window in Quincy’s courtyard and whistle up to him. (He often turned his cell phone off, out of principle.) “Where have you been?” he would query, possessive, after waving me up. “Lonely without you,” I’d say before discarding my clothes and climbing onto his warm body so I could feel his heart beat in three places: his neck, his hips, and his feet.
Afterward, we chose our adventure: the Museum of Fine Arts, an aimless walk, a bike ride. More often than not, we would stay in the room, where he would make tea and read me passages from H.P. Lovecraft, T.S. Eliot, Rilke, Nabokov. On weekends, we sometimes went on trips together, staying with various relatives in the Northeast.
“Make a wish,” he’d say whenever an eyelash fell out. I could think of nothing but Don’t let this happiness end.
Our first fall together, I found a bump, slightly tender yet hard as bone, emerging in the center of my right hand, just above the wrist. I ignored it until it grew big enough to attract the question, “What is that?” Compulsive Googling had led me to believe it was a cyst. Unconfirmed. Peter and I laughed about it. He called it my witch’s bump and kissed it.
Finally, a few months later, my dermatologist told me it was a ganglion cyst and referred me to a hand surgeon, who told me recovery would put my right hand out of commission for two to six weeks. I was in school, typing and taking tests; I couldn’t afford to lose my hand for that long.
So I went home and turned again to Google: “Many years ago, ganglion cysts were also called Bible bumps because the standard treatment for such bumps involved having one's doctor slam down on it with a heavy book, usually a Bible.” I begged Peter to try it on me with a copy of Ulysses. When he finally relented, he whacked it so lightly, it barely hurt.
If someone had asked me, “Are you happy?” I would probably have said no. But if someone had asked, “Is your relationship with Peter making you unhappy?” I would have laughed. It often seemed as if our relationship was the only thing that made me happy. From what little I knew of great love—from Romeo and Juliet, Anna Karenina, Titanic, Madame Bovary—what we had was, I thought, what love should be: insular, consuming, slightly lonely. I had spent so long blaming my lack of a boyfriend for whatever discontent I was feeling that I couldn’t imagine having a boyfriend could make me unhappy.
My favorite poem during that time was by e.e. cummings, which I memorized and recited for Peter once:
if your wish be to close me,I and
my life will shut very beautifully,suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;
Flowers, Peter told me, actually do this: open and close in response to external stimuli, like weather and light. There was a word for it: nyctinasty, from the Greek words night and pressed.
We spent the next summer 11 time zones apart: he, at home in California, and I, back in Russia doing volunteer work. Whatever discontent I had felt during that year developed into something closer to depression that summer—and not only because I was separated from Peter. After only three weeks in Russia, my retina detached, necessitating immediate surgery there. The surgery went well, but recovery was long, painful, and far from home. Meanwhile, my grandmother was dying. I dealt with all of this by subsisting primarily on water, celery, and grapes.
Throughout the flight, I tended nervously to my eye, the whites of which had turned a dark shade of pink in the cabin’s dry air.
Peter was barely responding to my emails. When I got back to the US in August, he told me why: He felt guilty because he’d kissed another girl—or, rather, as he said, another girl had kissed him. I hung up on him and cried on the bathroom floor, tears oozing from my still-swollen eye, feeling like a cliché of a cliché. Why are women always crying on bathroom floors? Why would my boyfriend choose to kick me while I was already down?
Peter called the next morning. “I’m flying you to California,” he said. “I need to see you. When can you come?” I was reluctant to leave home—my eye was still recovering, my grandmother was in the hospital, I was angry—but he prevailed: on the plane I went. Throughout the flight, I tended nervously to my eye, the whites of which had turned a dark shade of pink in the cabin’s dry air.
He was waiting, as he always did when I visited, at the bottom of the escalator near the baggage claim. He picked me up when he hugged me. “Hi,” he whispered into my ear. “Hi,” I whispered back.
Shortly after I returned to the East Coast, mollified and slightly sunburned, I began reading a short story collection Peter had bought for me at City Lights: The Woman Destroyed by Simone de Beauvoir. The final, eponymous story traces the story of Monique, a wealthy middle-aged housewife, whose life falls apart after her husband confesses he is having an affair. As her marriage disintegrates, Monique realizes that without her husband, she has no life left of her own. She had given all of herself to him.
The story agitated me; I couldn’t sleep. I waited until 6 a.m. in California to call. I tried to explain—“It seemed like an augury. If someone else had given it to me, it would be different…” Aloud, the words sounded silly and overwrought. I could hear the note of impatience—you woke me for this?—in his voice, as he tried to placate me: “It’s just a book, Emma.” Later that day, I went out to a small rocky beach with the slim paperback and a pack of matches. It is not easy to light a book on fire. When I ran out of matches, I ripped the pages to pieces, walked out into the ocean, and pushed them under a heavy mass of seaweed. Eventually they would disintegrate.
Back at school in the fall, we looked the same: still two cute blonds cooking big meals, staying in to listen to jazz on Saturday nights, reading the Harper’s Index to each other in bed, coming up with new secret ways to say, “I love you”—but that kiss had broken something essential to the relationship. Love, like fairytales, demands a willing suspension of disbelief: In order to enjoy it, you need to suspend judgment concerning the implausibility of the forever narrative, of the happily ever after. The kiss undid my ability to suspend belief. It was as if I had seen a woman cut in half at the circus later walking around on the street, healthy and whole. Now I knew we would end someday. He would end it. I was sure of it.
Cambridge. Raining. Around noon. I was in my room wearing a silk bathrobe that had belonged to my grandmother and frantically adding last-minute edits to a term paper. I had returned that morning from a high school friend’s wedding in Israel. I was exhausted from the 11-hour plane ride, hungry, and stressed: I hadn’t thought about the paper since I’d left a week ago.
Peter came over. I had missed him. He sat on the edge of my bed looking very serious and told me, “I can’t do this anymore.”
He was, I realized rather slowly, breaking up with me. I started trembling violently and crying.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “We would have had beautiful children.”
“Wait,” I said, turning the suitcase on the floor behind me. “I got you a something in Israel.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “We would have had beautiful children.”
I grabbed the copper tray and cookies that I’d bought for him, and threw them at him. The tray missed. He stood up.
“Emma, you don’t have to—”
“Just take them,” I said. “Please just take them.”
I picked up a book. He took a step back.
“But tell me: Who is she?”
Another step back.
“This is what you do, right? Line up the next girl before dumping the first?”
I threw the book on the floor.
“Do you realize I have a paper due in two fucking hours?”
Another step. He was retreating.
He was close to the door now. “Wait,” I said going over to him, “wait.” I sunk to my knees before him. “Wait. Does this mean I have to stop seeing you?” I actually hugged myself to his legs. “I love you so much. How—” (how did I manage to speak through the tears?) “—can I just stop seeing you?”
When I went outside to go to the computer lab to print my paper about an hour later, I found him smoking on a bench, looking as pale and glum as young Werther. “I can’t do this to you, Emma. I love you. Please. Let’s try again.”
Three weeks later, I went over to his dorm for dinner. “Can we take a walk?” he asked as soon as I arrived. My heart started beating erratically. We were standing at the stoplight (couldn’t he have waited till we had crossed?) when he said, “This isn’t working for me.” He only spoke about the breakup using stock phrases like this. How could I fix it if I didn’t understand what was wrong?
It was not raining but the sky was gray and I was trembling. When he tried to touch me, I ran away, crossing streets without looking both ways. “Emma, Jesus, please be careful,” he called as he tried to keep up. But I didn’t care. If he didn’t want me, I didn’t want myself. I was crying. Why was I always crying? I stopped by a bed of tulips, yanked one out of the dirt, and started pulling off its petals. I thought of how Vronsky looks at Anna, after the initial luster of their affair has worn off, “as a man might look at a faded flower he had plucked, in which it was difficult for him to trace the beauty that had made him pick and so destroy it.” I threw the flower, partially petalled, away. I already knew: he loved me not.
I called him a few weeks later. He said, in trying to explain to his mother why he had broken up with me, he told her we had become like two skaters with our skates laced together. I wondered how long it had taken him to come up with that metaphor and if he expected me to compliment it. He continued: “I feel like I broke all the bones in my arm with a hammer.” I had been an appendage.
In the following weeks, I wore my body carefully, as if it were a man’s oversized blazer that threatened to slip from its perch on my shoulders with any abrupt movement. I didn’t stop showering, but I stopped looking at myself when I showered. I dressed quickly and furtively. I avoided touching my hips, my breasts, my stomach.
I told all my friends I had not seen the breakup coming, but a small part of me had always known: If a man leaves his girlfriend for you, he can’t really be trusted. My earlier self had engineered my present misery.
That summer Peter was backpacking across China and Tibet. He sent me a long letter in which he despaired about the black hole that had replaced our relationship. I passed most of my sleepless nights willing myself not to fill his inbox with email upon email beseeching, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, how could you.
Two years after my cyst appeared, I was still waiting for it to go away on its own. It was still ugly. I scheduled my surgery.
I thought I wanted to get rid of the cyst, but as the surgery approached I grew increasingly anxious and afraid.
As I stared up into the lights from the operating table, I began to cry. “Don’t worry,” the anesthesiologist said as he wiped tears from the corners of my eyes. “It’s only a minor surgery.”
I tell people we dated for two years but really it was only 21 months.
Two weeks later, the doctor removed the single long stitch to reveal my hand, scarred, yet once again slender and flat. Walking up Second Avenue in the sun, I remembered one winter night when I was out visiting Peter in California. I had gone to bed early so he could finish catching up with friends over gin-and-tonics in the garage. He had come into the bedroom much later, dropped his clothed body over mine, unclothed beneath the sheets, and suffocated me with alcohol-heavy breath as he told me he loved in grammatically incorrect Russian.
I flexed the fingers of my healing hand and smiled.